The Year of the Boat - [Excerpt]
Sasquatch Books 2008
It began as a project to build a wooden sailboat in a suburban garage within a self-imposed deadline of one year. But difficulties—both technical and emotional—made a shambles of the deadline, and Lawrence Cheek’s project to build a boat became an inquiry into the nature of beauty, a struggle with obsession and perfectionism, and finally a question of character. The Year of the Boat is the story of how one man built a boat in spite of himself.
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A sailboat is a beautiful thing, so naturally you begin building it possessed by a vision of exquisite and perfect beauty. And then across the sprawling hours needed to build it—3,500 in my case—this perfect vision crashes into the rocky reality of uneven skills and imperfect character. In the end, unless you negotiate peace with the demon of perfectionism, you’re left with the ruins of a dream and a painful testament to personal shortcomings.
It’s something we all confront in our work, if we care about it. There’s never enough skill or time or budget to get it absolutely right, so we compromise. The relentless push for more productivity keeps tightening the screws. As Tom Rachman, author of “The Imperfectionists,” says of his frenetic stint reporting for the Associated Press, “One had time to cope, but rarely to excel.”
In the wake of furious coping, we may wonder if we’ve compromised not just the product, but our own souls.
I first reported on my boat-in-progress (a Devlin Winter Wren II) in a “Preoccupations” column in January 2010. I not only wanted a boat; I was also deeply interested in the values of the working life, and pushing beyond the edges of my physical and intellectual abilities was a provocative way to explore them.
I’m a recovering perfectionist, and the project challenged my recovery at every turn. A hard-core perfectionist will never live long enough to complete a wooden boat. Yet an indifferently crafted sailboat is an embarrassment to a noble tradition and a potential hazard to anyone trusting it to keep out the sea. The question kept nagging: How good is good enough?
The quandary converged in the week I made the windows—“portlights” in nautical parlance.
My original vision had glowed with four bronze portlights, certifiably classy details on a traditional-looking boat. When I learned they would cost $250 each, I cast around for an alternative. Aluminum and plastic portlights exist, which in relation to a wooden boat should be held in the same regard as wharf rats. That left wood, which meant I would have to make them myself.
A window needs a frame to define it, so I made an oval pattern and began cutting out pieces of mahogany. No need to clutter this account with the technical details, but there had to be continually changing bevels and perfect joinery, and the precision demanded was simply beyond my skills. After a week of tossing failed attempts, I finally assembled and varnished some imperfect bits, happy to declare the wicked job done, but not feeling very good about it.
A diverse crowd of people have riffed on this interior conflict, with no consensus. Bill Withers, the R&B singer/philosopher, says he’s told his kids, “You know, it’s OK to head out for wonderful, but on your way to wonderful, you’re going to have to pass through all right, and when you get to all right, take a good look around and get used to it because that may be as far as you’re going to get.”
But here’s Paul Krugman on health care reform, telling us not to be satisfied: “There’s a trap I’ve seen some people fall into—you let your vision of what should be get completely taken over by what appears possible right now—and that’s something I’m trying to avoid.”
Who to follow, Mr. Withers or Mr. Krugman? Is “getting used to OK” tantamount to complacency, or is it the zen-like acceptance that leads to a satisfying life?
I saw a couple of principles through my portlights, and they seem to refract throughout the universe of work.
First is that different pieces of a boat, like the spectrum of any work, require or tolerate different standards of craftsmanship. Things that affect structure and seaworthiness must be done right, and if the amateur builder doesn’t know how, he or she had better yell for help. But cosmetic issues such as window frames address the builder’s ego, not the boat’s integrity. So the principle is to separate ego from engineering.
Second is to recognize that imperfection is an imprint of our humanity. I was trying to craft my portlights to the standard of machine-made products—that was the vision—but why should they be? Except for its screws and bolts, my entire boat is handmade. Why should any piece of it pretend not to be?
These portlights form a recording of my own skills at the time—imperfect, but not thanks to sloth or carelessness. They testify to the best work I had in me at the time, and an adult decision not to plunge into the self-defeating bog of obsession.
The lesson for the larger world of work is that excellence is not an absolute, a holy grail to be pursued everywhere, immutably. Every task forms its own universe, and it asks for discerning judgment. A humane judgment.
I launched the boat in August, and while it’s a cavalcade of imperfections, it does what good boats do: It floats and sails, and looks rather smart in its marina slip amid a swarm of white plastic production sailboats. Several onlookers have called out the portlights—“You make those? Nice!”—which still embarrasses me a little, because they’re just not looking critically enough to see the flaws.
My recovery remains imperfect, my ego still bobbing to the surface, willful and slippery.