Over the next month-plus, David Lang, something of a reluctant maker, is immersing himself in maker culture and learning as many DIY skills as he can, through a generous arrangement with our pals at TechShop. He’ll be regularly chronicling his efforts in this column — what he’s learning, who he’s meeting, and what hurdles he’s clearing (um… or not). –Gareth
You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. -Jim Rohn
I first heard this quote when I was working at OCSC Sailing in 2009. I had just completed my sailing certification for chartering boats up to 50 ft., and the quote stopped me in my tracks. It made me reflect on where I was and how I had gotten there. In the year and a half prior, I’d gone from no sailing experience to chartering large sailboats in San Francisco Bay, one of the toughest locations in the country. It was an achievement I was proud of. The strange part was, I didn’t feel any different. In fact, I felt like exactly the same person I’d always been. When I heard the above quote, it all started to make sense. I thought back to other jobs and phases of my life, back to college and high school. In each case, no matter how much I had studied or how much I’d tried, the skills or habits that really took hold could be directly attributed to who I was spending time with.
I have since adopted this as something of a philosophy for how to effectively gain new skills. As a first step on my journey from “Zero to Maker,” I spent a lot of time thinking about who I was going to spending time with, and more importantly, how I was going to convince them to let me hang out! After a cursory search for people to meet in my area (San Francisco), many of the signs pointed to Make: SF, a monthly Meetup group that offers, in their own words, “an opportunity to get started in the maker community. You can meet local makers, learn some new skills and grow from there.”
The August Make: SF meeting at Noisebridge in San Francisco
Lucky for me, the Meetup was only a few days away and a few blocks from my apartment. I arrived at the event a few minutes early and was able to get a tour of Noisebridge, the hackerspace hosting the event, as well as a brief history of the Make: SF group from Malcolm, one of their organizers. During our conversation, I nervously revealed to Malcolm that I was a total beginner, to which he excitedly replied that I had come to the right place. Soon thereafter, the room began to fill with other attendees. Although there were well over twenty people, Malcolm still took the time to go around and have everyone introduce him or herself and say what inspired them to come. The diversity of the crowd was amazing, men and women from every background: an art director, an animator, an artist, a real estate broker, and a software engineer. When Andrew (the other organizer) asked how many of us were new to making and Make: SF, over half of the hands in the room went up. I felt right at home – this would be a safe place to make mistakes and ask questions.
Dave’s first soldering project, a MintyBoost.
We divided into three different groups to begin the evening’s workshop: electronics kits. I broke off into the group that was making the MintyBoost, a device that charges iPhones and iPods with AA batteries. Each of us was given a kit and a soldering iron. This was my first experience with soldering, and that was obvious. Even though I had little idea what I was doing, Malcolm walked us all through it. Anything I missed or didn’t understand, one of the other group members would step in and help me (and vice versa). By the end of the night, I left with a cool new iPhone charger, some basic soldering skills, and a handful of new friends. Not bad for a Tuesday night.
Three ways to spend more time with makers:
1. Meetups – Meetups are a great way to meet people interested in… well, basically anything. Maker meetups are no different. I found my way to Make: SF because they were local, but it’s very likely there are groups near you. If there aren’t any in your area, you can always start your own. Andrew, the original Make: SF organizer, started the group after moving to the Bay Area and finding no groups like the Make: NYC (now dormant) he’d been involved with. Make: SF now has over 730 members and has hosted almost 80 events.
2. Hackerspaces – Hackerspaces are excellent places to meet other makers. I continually hear and read about new hackerspaces opening up all the time. You can find a list of nearly every hackerspace on the planet here. An important note to remember is that each hackerspace is unique. For example, Noisebridge (where the Make: SF Meetup was held) is a different environment than a place like TechShop. Noisebridge is a co-op model, which works well for experienced makers who need a space to hack, whereas TechShop, which works more like a gym membership, is better suited to makers who need access to tools as well as classes and project mentoring.
3. Volunteer! – The maker community is one of the most welcoming bunch of people you could ever find and it’s amazing how much you can learn when you simply offer to help. There are a number of projects and groups that need assistance, even from those of us with limited technical backgrounds. You can peruse the MAKE site or Instructables.com for projects that catch your eye, then email the maker to see if there is any way you can get involved. Attending a Maker Faire or Meetup event is another great avenue to offer your participation.
See the Maker Community Directory for links to hackerspaces, Make: City groups, and other maker/crafter clubs and orgs.
More: Follow David’s Zero to Maker journey
In the Maker Shed: MintyBoost New version! Works with the iPhone 4. Build your own MintyBoost, a small and simple (but very powerful) USB charger for your iPod or other MP3 player, camera, cellphone, and any other gadget you can plug into a USB port to charge. Mint tin not included.