It Doesn’t Matter What Route You Take, As Long As You Get There, Right?

“It doesn’t matter what route you take, as long as you reach your destination.”

I see different versions of this sentiment pop up frequently on various forums.  It’s usually offered as a reasonable middle ground when two people are hotly disputing the “right” way to do something, whether that is to join two pieces of wood together, shape a pipe stem, or write a poem.

The problem with the statement is that it’s misleading on at least two levels.

First, for anybody who is trying to build skill, the method does matter.  It matters a lot.  Whether you are learning to sharpen a chisel, play the clarinet, or hit a baseball, as long as you are still learning the basics, you have to master the fundamental methods.  If you want to learn to hit a baseball, you can use a closed stance or an open stance, but if you don’t know how to keep your head down, rotate your hips, and follow through, you’ll never hit well.  You might use water stones, diamond stones, or sandpaper to sharpen a chisel, but if you don’t keep a consistent angle, you’ll never raise a wire edge.  Whatever the task, there are usually several sound methods to choose from, but they all fall within a narrow range of practices that yield predictable results.

One of the best ways to learn a skill is to set strict limits on yourself.  If you want to learn to parallel park, you could commit to parking only in parallel parking spaces for a month.  If you want to learn to use hand tools effectively, you could commit to building a major project with only hand tools.  In the woodworking community, however, anybody who says, “I’m going to build this using ONLY hand tools” is often met with a lot of raised eyebrows.  Yet there is great value in setting arbitrary boundaries for yourself, IF you are doing it in order to build skill and not just for bragging rights.

Secondly, altering the route often alters the destination. And that’s where the metaphor of a project as a journey gets us into trouble.

Does it really matter whether you walk or drive across town if you end up in the same place? I say yes, it does matter. In walking, you may find yourself taking shortcuts that would be impossible in a car.  And you have been fully present in more places along the way, and you will see the destination differently when you do arrive, albeit several hours after the guy who drove the car.  Or you may find that you didn’t really need to go all the way across town, and that what you needed was within walking distance all the time.

Let me use a silly example: Theodore Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) was once challenged by a friend to write a whole children’s book using 50 words or fewer. On its face, it’s a dumb idea. Why limit yourself to only 50 words when there are hundreds of thousands of English words to choose from–not to mention the multitude of made-up words that Geisel was so fond of? But Geisel took the bet, and he wrote one of his most memorable books ever: Green Eggs & Ham.  Without those limits, he would have written quite a different book.

Similarly, if I limit myself to certain kinds of tools tools, that always affects how my projects look/feel at the end.  When working with machines, for example, workpieces must often be milled to precise dimensions that hand tools couldn’t care less about.  Some time ago, Woodworking Magazine (April 2008) had a feature article on making two Stickley tabouret tables, one of which wad made primarily with power tools and the other primarily with hand tools.  From one photograph of the two tables side by side, it is easy to tell which one was made with hand tools. (I’d show a picture, but I fear copyright infringement.) The one with the shallow curves on the stretchers was made primarily with hand tools.  Those curves are easy to shape by hand with a spokeshave; the tight curves on the other table’s stretchers could also be made with hand tools, but not as easily as the shallow curves.   Neither table is necessarily better than the other, but they are two different tables.

So yes, the route you take matters.  If the destination matters at all, then so does the journey.

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