I should apologize.
I realized I made a mistake with my book, Zero to Maker — an error of omission. I wrote it with the goal of trying to help other people get started. And the best way to do that, I thought, was making it as easy and straight-forward as possible. I quickly moved through the parts of my story that were hard – the depression, the doubting, the insecurity – because I didn’t wish that for anyone else. Probably more honestly, though, I just didn’t know how to talk about those moments. I still don’t. They’re intensely personal. And embarrassing. I know that people are facing far bigger issues and challenges: illness, grief, loss. Those are real problems. Worrying about my lack of creative ability hardly seemed like reason to complain. But the truth is I’ve spent a good majority of the past few years feeling like an abject failure – entire days feeling as though I don’t know enough, am not smart or skilled enough, and am just an overall drain on the world. In other words: just terrible.
I wish I knew how to talk about this. I wish I could have conveyed this in my writing. Because now that I’m getting notes and messages from others who’ve started down the path, I recognize that same emotional depth. The same loneliness. The same staring into the unknown. The same worry about inadequacy. And there’s nothing I can do to help, except offer a genuine “I know what you mean.” Because I’m right there, still fighting all those battles myself. I’m still in the middle of it.
Beginnings are exciting. Endings are a relief. But middles are hard. There’s every excuse to not make something, to not start a new project, to not learn a new skill. It’s going to take time. There’s going to be an endless amount of terrible output. There will probably be major mistakes, many irreversible. The odds of a project ever being completed in a satisfactory manner are impossibly small.
Yet, I’m still getting messages from readers who are doing it. People who have taken those brave first steps into the foggy future. People like Dale Crowner, who’s starting a makerspace in Annapolis, or Sam Reynolds, who dove head first into building an OpenROV. Instead of grabbing onto any one of the legitimate excuses for not doing anything, they’re making something. In spite of it all, they’ve begun.
I know there are people who don’t struggle. There are some people who – as far as I can tell – have no problem picking up something new, filling their days with consistent practice and diligent work. I’ve met a number of these types, and they always amaze me. I envy them. I am not one of them.
My year of making – the whole “Zero to Maker” period – was a dark time. It went deeper than just losing my job. I got dumped. My savings dried up, and I had to move out of my apartment. I was living in my car. By nearly every metric, it was bad. But I did have few things going for me. I had my column for MAKE: and every week I would try a new skill, a new tool, a new project. And I had my friend Eric and this underwater robot we were trying to build (even though it seemed like a hopelessly ambitious effort). I was still trying.
That time in the shop saved my life. Putting aside the anxiety and worry for an hour or two, while I worked on a project or took a class at TechShop, could always turn my mood around, or at minimum kept me distracted enough to do something productive. The patience of the teachers and the encouragement of others around the shop was my lifeline. Eventually, that became the new normal. It still is. Just keep going: moving forward, working on the next thing, and helping as many other people as possible.
During that period, I wasn’t the only one in TechShop trying to rebuild my life. In many of my classes, and always there to lend a word of encouragement, was Marc Roth. Marc was in a tougher spot than I was – living at the homeless shelter blocks away from TechShop, looking for any work that would give him the cash to support his two kids – but he had a far better attitude than I did. Regardless of the circumstances, he never had a bad word to say about anyone or anything, and never wavered from his commitment to learning. Marc and I both became regulars at TechShop, largely because we had little place else to be. I watched him go from manually and mechanically illiterate to the most skilled laser cutter operator in San Francisco (among many other new skills). We hired him as soon as we needed the help for OpenROV. So did a lot of others.
Marc has become the de facto source for production laser cutting in San Francisco, and his company, SF Laser, has flourished. But Marc has decided to take on a bigger challenge. Something closer to his heart (and closer to mine, too). He’s opening up the Learning Shelter – a physical space for his ideas on helping other homeless folks get back on their feet through making and a digital fabrication education. He knows what he’s talking about. And, more importantly, he is focused and determined.
He’s jumpstarting his project here: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-learning-shelter
(It’s a tax-deductible donation thanks to the fiscal sponsorship of the Institute for the Future – they’re not taking a cut, just helping out.)
You can help. I hope you do. More importantly, I hope you realize that your small contributions – a few dollars, a Facebook share, a kind message – matter very much. The small nudges of support are the only way a project like this succeeds – the only way Marc’s dream comes to life. The internet has made it easier than ever to offer a nudge. Too easy, maybe. But don’t let that diminish it. We’re all in this together – you, me, and Marc are all sitting on the other side of these screens. Doing our best. And totally dependent on those little nudges from one another.
It’s been hard for me to look back – to stop and think about all that’s happened over the past few years. Thinking about it never seems productive. But whenever I do, it’s obvious the only way I made it through was with a thousand little nudges from the people around me. When you realize that. You understand that your job in this world is to be a nudger yourself. Aloneness is almost certain failure. Togetherness is the long, hard road that keeps it all going.