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Approaching the wood
How — and why — I'm trying to understand not-knowing.
(It’s a long one. But there are photos! And some links to thematically related old and new writing at the very end.)
At dinner recently, conversation eventually turned to my project to understand not-knowing.
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A bit more than ten years ago, I started actively researching not-knowing.As an organizational sociologist, I was interested in how people and teams used not-knowing to design how they work to become better at doing new things. I took it more or less for granted that not-knowing as an active strategy would be interesting to management researchers.
Now I’m trying to talk to non-academics about not-knowing as an active strategy. The bar for interest and engagement is justifiably much higher. My dinner interlocutor was confused by the project. “Why bother? It’s everywhere,” she said, referring to not-knowing. (To be fair, she is among the more uncertainty-tolerant people I have ever met.)
Since starting the discussion series on not-knowing, I’ve realized that most people have a different view about not-knowing than I do. This view is: “If not-knowing is unavoidable, there’s no point in spending (= wasting) time thinking about it. We just have to live with it.”
I understand why this view makes sense, but I disagree with it. However, during dinner I couldn’t explain why I disagreed. So that conversation rattled about in the back of my mind for a few weeks until this last weekend, when the explanation finally crystallized.
The explanation is easiest by analogy, and the analogy is about approaches to wood.
About 15 years ago I became obsessed for a time with studio furniture and particularly with working in wood.I joined the workshop of John Grew-Sheridan, a master furnituremaker. John sold access to his meticulously maintained woodshop in Bayview for something like $5/h to a handful of Silicon Valley types. It was billed as a semi-self-directed sort-of workshop-school. John’s encyclopedic expertise and grouchy but superb instruction and advice came free with the already risible hourly fee, making this undoubtedly the best deal I’ve ever found.
The first thing John taught every new shop member was how to process raw lumber into pieces that are dimensionally stable (i.e., they don’t change shape while you’re working with them) and square (i.e., the surfaces, edges, and corners are truly parallel/perpendicular to each other). Furniture depends on accurately measured and cut components and joints. Dimensional stability and squareness are essential for accurate measurement and cutting. The idea is to make the lumber as close to a Platonic solid as possible to enable the precision work to follow.
Trees are not Platonic solids. A tree grows irregularly, depending on the slope of the land it’s on, how much rain it gets, whether it was shaded, whether an insect bored into it, and innumerable other factors. Bacteria, fungi, and the drying process affect the shape and appearance of wood in unpredictable ways. Raw lumber milled out from a tree is highly irregular — it is very much not a Platonic solid either (hence “crooked timber” as a metaphor for human imperfectness).
I processed the raw material for my first project (a simple set of folding shelves — it was a training wheels project) to remove as many imperfections as I could. Knots, strange grain, odd colour; I tried to get rid of as much of it as possible. With mild resentment, I adapted the design around unavoidable imperfections in the wood.
This is how almost all novices and the vast majority of experienced furnituremakers approach raw processing of lumber. It’s conceptually much easier to approach a project deterministically like this: Come up with a design plan for the piece in advance, get the material, process it to get rid of whatever the design does not envisage so the design can be accurately implemented — change the design if forced to by unavoidable imperfections in the material.
The second piece I made at John’s was a large table. To make the top, I bought big century-old beams salvaged from a demolished factory in Mission Bay. Each beam was a single piece of Douglas fir about 10 feet long, 2 feet wide, and 3 inches thick, with some nails still protruding. I wanted to take off the dirty, torn-up outsides to reveal what I hoped would be pristine rose-gold cores, then mill these cores down even more before gluing them up and milling them yet again into a single magnificent, massive panel.
Sawing up big recycled lumber is disruptive. Heavy equipment has to be moved around so that there’s room to maneuver the pieces. It can be dangerous: Hidden metal (like a sneaky buried nail — there’s always at least one) can snap the bandsaw’s blade and send it zipping around the wheels. John wanted me to wait a week before processing my enormous beams so the other shop members could finish up what they needed to … and so I could make a plan of attack.
In the meantime, John lent me his copy of The Impractical Cabinetmaker by James Krenov, who taught at the College of the Redwoods, north of San Francisco. This book brings the reader through three of Krenov’s furniture projects. These are, in my view, only a pretext for illustrating a different approach to working with wood.
The essence of this alternative approach is not to start by coming up with a design, then imposing that design on the raw materials. One of Krenov’s students relates how Krenov talked through his approach to designing and constructing a cabinet: “He allowed his eye to determine the proper dimensions, proportions and details for the particular type and character of wood that he was using. Jim [Krenov] didn’t work from a drawing – rather, he designed and built on the fly, by ‘composing.’” You can see one of Krenov’s cabinets that resulted from this responsive, alternative approach below.
The alternative approach to wood actively considers the raw material (including any irregularities and imperfections) and designs in a way that profits from what is there, irregularities and all. The design is provisional, continually evolving in response to learning more about the material.
Other master furnituremakers like George Nakashima, Sam Maloof, and Wharton Esherick — and John Grew-Sheridan — seem to have worked in a similar way, allowing design and material to be in mutually productive conversation.
With this approach, these things stand out about how the maker relates to the material and the work to be done: The maker is intentionally open to what is actually there and is actively working to understand and appreciate the material’s affordances. Most important of all, it treats imperfection and irregularity as a resource and opportunity instead of only as a constraint.
Furniture made with this alternative approach feels different, alive.
The rocking chair above was made by Sam Maloof, who said, “there’s a lot of work being done today that doesn’t have any soul in it. The technique may be the utmost perfection, yet it is lifeless. It doesn’t have a soul. I hope my furniture has a soul to it. I do not feel that it is possible to make a working drawing with all the intricate and fine details that go into a chair or stool, particularly. Many times, I do not know how a certain area is to be done until I start working with a chisel, rasp or whatever tool is needed for that particular job.”
Back to the dinner conversation: “If its unavoidable, there’s no point in spending (= wasting) time thinking about it. We just have to live with it.” I can now say why I disagree with this view even though it is true. It’s because there’s a different, better way.
This conventional view of not-knowing is analogous to the conventional approach to wood: Get rid of whatever not-knowing (irregularities) you can, adjust what you do (your design) to accommodate the rest suboptimally. This is hard to do, but also conceptually easy.
The alternative approach to wood is analogous to how I think not-knowing should be approached. It’s actually and conceptually hard: Actively acknowledge the reality and unavoidability of not-knowing (irregularity). Don’t grudgingly adjust actions (designs) because of it. Instead, work on understanding its affordances so that not-knowing can become a motivation and an integral part of the actions chosen. The actions and their results will likely feel different, alive.
Like the alternative approach to working with wood, this alternative approach to not-knowing won’t be for everyone. I don’t know exactly what this alternative approach consists of yet — it is definitely a work in progress.
If you want to help build the alternative: The third discussion in the series Thinking About Not-knowing is about the complicated interconnections between how our bodies react physically to situations of not-knowing and how our minds perceive and interpret these embodied reactions. Thursday, 16 March, 2023, from 8-10pm CET (that’s 7-9pm UK, 3-5pm Eastern, 12-2pm Pacific). Session information and tickets here.
As for the table: It was my first conscious foray into approaching situations in this active but appreciative way. The difference in approach is a feeling that is entirely noticeable in practice though nearly impossible to put in words. The finished table has many small details that made it great fun to use and is very tactile. I’m aware that these are absurd-sounding things to say about a table. It currently lives in Woodside, California and I hope to have it back one day.
Related writing, recent and not-so-recent
Approaching not-knowing voluntarily and involuntarily. Doing something voluntarily — like actively treating imperfection/not-knowing as a resource instead of only as a constraint — changes how you do that thing. In January 2020, I wrote about how the voluntary, active search for situations of not-knowing “can create a cycle of mutually reinforcing internal and external exploration.”
Not-knowing and happiness. Summary notes from an InterIntellect conversation last week about the connections between accepting not-knowing and being happy, double-loop learning, beginner mind, and strategies for bridging the gap between people who are comfortable with not-knowing and people who aren’t.
See you next time,
I began by focusing on Knightian uncertainty as contrasted with formal risk. Over the last few years, I realised that Knightian uncertainty is just one of a range of types of partial knowledge (formal risk is another). Being explicit that there are many types of “not-knowing” will clarify some things which would otherwise stay stubbornly opaque — that’s all to come though. A bit more on why I’ve started insisting on this terminology in my introduction to not-knowing.
Thanks to my manager at Google back then, the wonderful and very patient Celia Saino.
You can find doors, tables, and cabinetry made of quarter-sawn, slow-grown Douglas fir all over the Bay Area. Most of these date from a time now long-past when old-growth conifer forests were abundant and treated cavalierly. This wood is finely striated and pink-tinged gold when fresh-cut, and the scent is wonderful too. It eventually weathers to a warm medium brown I always associate with the colour palette of Northern California.
The alternative approach described here doesn’t seem restricted to furnituremakers. It appears to be common to people working at a high level in situations which are (or can be) filled with not-knowing. Donald Schön calls it “a conversation with the situation” in his book, The Reflective Practitioner.