Upholstery: a Little Life Lesson

I think every teacher/artist/athlete/craftsperson sees their “medium” as a metaphor for life. It’s one reason I love quotes – we can all be inspired by the passionate people around us, even those who have passions different than our own.

Some examples:

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Whether you’re a boxer or a welder, a knitter or a chef, the things we do offer opportunities to understand ourselves and our world a little better.

But really? Even upholstery?

Oh yes. Even upholstery.

I feel like I’ve learned all sorts of valuable life lessons at the upholstery shop, but one in particular was rolling around my brain this week. . .

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One tricky aspect of learning and teaching upholstery is that we’re rarely afforded a perfect road map. There are certain subsets of upholstery that may have more repetition (production) or clearer rules (traditional) but if you want definite beginning to end instructions, this upholstery thing is going to be rough, especially at the start.

But here’s the bottom line: You can’t NOT start, just because you aren’t sure where the last staple will go. 

I mean . . . okay, you CAN, but you aren’t going to get very far. 

And if you’re anything like me, maybe that’s something you stumble over in other areas of your life. 

I LOVE to sit around, frozen with uncertainty. OH MY GOOOOOOOOSH!!!!!!! WHAT IF I GO THIS WAY AND I SHOULD HAVE GONE THAT WAY?????? I CAN’T GET STARTED BECAUSE I DON’T HAVE EVERY ANSWER TO EVERY QUESTION I MAY OR MAY NOT RUN INTO!!!!!!!!!!

Upholstery has been good for me in this regard. Will it surprise you to learn that I still feel a flutter of trepidation at the start of a project? I mentioned this last week to The Fabulous Amy Oh – I was just starting these fabulous client chairs:

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There’s always ALWAYS a certain amount of uncertainty . . . or rather, CERTAINTY . . . that I’ll run into little struggles and surprises along the way. I don’t love that. But it’s an unavoidable fact of upholstery, and of the world, and I’d live a pretty small life if I stuck my head in the dirt and tried not to run into trouble.

Usually, once I get to work, solutions present themselves. I can figure out a lot by rolling up my sleeves and digging in.

It certainly works a lot better than sitting at home worrying about it. 

And what if I have to try a few solutions to get a winner? And what if I have to call a trusted mentor? And what if I have to pull an arm off and start over?

What if, what if, what it???

I recognize these same worries in students all the time. They walk to their chair with a piece of fabric . . . and immediately freak out. The inside arm, which we’re tackling on Aunt Bea this week, is a great example. WATCH THE VIDEO

Before the first tentative staple goes in, people start panicking about the pleats – THE PLEATS! THE PLEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAATS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! AHHHHHHHHH WHAT ABOUT THE PLEEEEEEAAAAAAATS?????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Listen up:

Chill out.

We’ll talk about the pleats when we get there. And we’ll figure them out. But put that worry in a drawer, and let’s just figure out where to start. Okay, now let’s figure out where to go next. And next. And next.

When you’re doing something new, you probably don’t have a clear path forward. But can you identify a good first step?

Let’s get all Inception up in here and consider a metaphor inside of our metaphor: 

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It’s like standing in the fog. You can only see a couple of steps in any direction. But guess what? Once you take a couple steps, you’ll probably see a couple more.

Maybe you’ll go the wrong way and have to go back. So what? At least you discovered a path that doesn’t work.

Maybe you’ll run into someone and have to ask for directions. So what? Maybe that someone knows a destination even better than the one you were headed for.

But one thing’s for sure: You’ll never get anywhere, standing around squinting at the woods. Take it from good ol’ Teddy Roosevelt: 

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And anyway, few destinations are reached by the shortest distance possible: The fog of my upholstery career is crisscrossed with footsteps in every conceivable direction. But every misstep has taught me something valuable, so in the end were they really missteps at all?

Here’s another quote to chew on:

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Isn’t that a wonderful way to frame the journey?

Now, I’m not necessarily saying that we need to learn EVERYTHING the hard way – I’m delighted that someone else invented the lightbulb, so I can just come home and enjoy it.

Likewise, I’m happy to share everything I’ve tried with students so that they don’t have to discover every single misstep for themselves. And I’m glad that others have done that for me.

But there IS great value in giving yourself permission to move forward without a perfect plan.

And there’s even greater value in trusting your future self to figure the rest out.

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You said it, Steve.

Head to YouTube and subscribe to follow Aunt Bea on her journey! 

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