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October 2010 -Testing yourself

I have been reading a biography of an eminent woodworker from California, Sam Maloof. If I may quote from his writing:

"To make something to suit yourself alone is simple. To make furniture to fit a certain area, to perform certain functions challenges your ingenuity, your creativity, and your skill. It brings you up against yourself and taxes your capabilities. Such tests are important."

This is a philosophy I have alluded to before and I believe it to be a very sound approach to life. Certainly in my own woodworking, I strive to introduce a new piece of joinery, a new finishing technique or modify a design to give, in my mind at least, a higher quality piece. Does this make me cringe at some of the things I have made in the past? Not at all, we learn from "failures" not successes. The early pieces I have made remind me of how I have learned, how I have improved my skills. They also teach me how much more I have to learn and encourage me to believe that I can get better. I only wish I had more time I could spend in the garage instead of the office.

Whilst in our jobs we are not creating pieces of furniture or works of art, I think the philosophy is still very relevant. I am currently struggling with a talk for a meeting that requires me to translate a very complex topic into language and concepts that will be understood by an audience that likely has a low level of scientific knowledge. This is not easy to do well, but it is a case of designing a lecture to "fit a certain area, to perform certain functions" and is intensely challenging and demands considerable ingenuity, creativity and skill. It would have been very easy to say NO and the time I was invited and indeed I wanted to. However, I accepted the challenge and right now wish I hadn't. On the other hand, I have learned a great deal about the subject and organised what were loosely aligned facts in my brain into a cohesive and deeper understanding of what s going on. The next time I teach this subject, I will do it better and the audience will be the beneficiaries.

The same situation applies to many other areas of our day to day jobs. Teaching is perhaps the most visible situation in which we expose ourselves warts and all, but the same is true in many other areas of our work. When we need additional or replacement equipment, we have to put our credibility on the line when we argue the importance of having the equipment. When we have to manage poor performance, we also expose our own method of work and have to walk a tightrope between improving performance and making matters worse. Sometimes we need to change the way we work in order to improve the performance of another.

Those of you in roles that are not officially management roles should also look for "tests" in order to develop yourself and your role. You should be looking for ways to improve the quality of the work the lab does. If you see a way that a process could be improved you have a choice - either carry on as usual or develop the idea you have and argue for its implementation. Your process may not be the one that is implemented, but there is a good chance the process will be improved one way or another as a result of your challenge.

It is easy to simply carry on, but this is a sure way to develop boredom. With boredom comes lack of critical awareness and loss of quality.

Next time a challenge comes your way, pick it up and test yourself. You will be the winner.

'til next time,


October, 2010




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