5 Essential Meta-Level Tips for Makers

Maker News

Most of the time here on Make:, we cover tips, tricks, and techniques related to the hands-on activity of making, tips on cutting, gluing, sanding, joining, and tips on things like shop organization.

Today’s tips are a little different, more “meta” level. They apply to one’s headspace around making, ways of organizing your thinking, your project planning and expectations, and how you conduct yourself as a maker.

If you have any similar tips related to your philosophy around making, we’d love to hear them. Please post them in the comments below.

Bird By Bird

One of my favorite books about the art of writing (and living) is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. In it, she tells the title story and how it became an operating principle in her life. The story goes: As a kid, she and her family were on a long summer vacation. Her 10 year old brother had brought his over-the-summer school project with him, a report on birds. A classic procrastinator, he’d waited until the summer was almost over and they were headed back home and back to school. Having waited until the last minute, he sat at the kitchen table in a panic, a giant pile of bird books and a stack of 3 x 5 cards in front of him. It was all too overwhelming. To try and console him, to give him some ray of hope, his dad put his hand on his son’s shoulder and said: “Just take it bird by bird, son. Bird by bird.” Lamott, also a procrastinator, has relied on that same advice ever since. To trick herself into getting work done every day, regardless of how crazy the day might be, she tells herself that she just has to take it one bird at a time: one 3 x 5 card, one paragraph, one page, whatever. Manageable chunks.

When you have a complex project – learning physical computing, building a robot, undertaking any task with an intimidating number of processes and parts, it can be really helpful to break it all down into small, manageable parts. Bird by bird, son. Bird by bird.

The Kenny Rogers Rule

How many times have you worked yourself up into a lather over some seemingly straightforward part of a build that you just can’t seem to get right? No matter how many times you do and re-do the steps, it all just seems to be an exercise in frustration. But then, in disgust, and before you start breaking furniture, you take a break, you sleep on it. When you come back, magically, the task comes together and you find yourself wondering what your problem was in the first place. I call this the “Kenny Rogers Rule” (from the lyrics to “The Gambler,” made popular by Rogers: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em. Know when to fold ’em. Know when to walk away. And know when to run.”). Trust me, applying this rule will end up saving the day nearly every single time.

There is Power in the Names of Things

Being a word nerd, I’ve always been fascinated by slang, jargon, and technical terms – the wild west of language. Applying this same interest as a maker, and paying attention to the proper terminology for different technologies, disciplines, materials, and processes, I’ve come to realize that there’s an incredible advantage in learning and communicating about a discipline if you know its language. In magical beliefs, knowing the true name of a thing or a person gives you power over them. I think there’s some real truth to that. Knowing what things are called can greatly accelerate the learning process. Search engines are fairly forgiving these days in terms of allowing you to describe things over naming name, but it’s still a good idea to try to identify, retain, and use the proper terminology.

Build Early, Build Often

I’ve always loved the writer’s adage: “Writers write.” It’s a muscle you have to use regularly to improve and strengthen it. The same goes with any building activity. Makers make. If you’re regularly using your tools, trying out new projects, new techniques, new tools, you will get better, you will master your shopcraft.

In my piece in Make: Volume 50, celebrating the 50th issue and some of the contributors that made it happen, Jimmy DiResta shared a related tip: “If you want to lean how to use a new machine, start making something on it immediately! Among other things, you quickly learn how to hide your mistakes.”

Getting Out of the Helsinki Bus Station

On the latest installment of Monthly Maker Chat on Twitter, engineer Star Simpson was asked “What’s the best lesson you’ve learned from a failed project?” As part of her response, she posted this clip from radio journalist Ira Glass on the nature of creativity and keeping going, even in the face of failure or ho-hum work.

YouTube player
For a similar idea from a different angle, check out the Helsinki Bus Station Theory of creativity. As the story goes, there is one major road leading in and out of the main Helsinki bus station. Regardless of what bus you get on, for the first few miles, they all travel down the same route and make the same stops. The author of the tale likens this to starting a new creative endeavor, a new artistic career. For a while, regardless of how hard you try, your work is likely going to be derivative, not very inspired; same route, same stops. People will liken your work to others, which might discourage you. But, like the route out of Helsinki, if you stay on the bus (if you do the hard work, learn from your failures, perfect your craft), eventually, all of the buses will veer off in their own unique directions.

So, to recap: take it bird by bird, learn to speak the native tongue, build early and often, take a break when you need to, and whatever you do, stay on the frackin’ bus!

[Photo credit: Keith Simmons.]

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at garstipsandtools.com.

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn


Maker Faire Bay Area 2023 - Mare Island, CA

Escape to an island of imagination + innovation as Maker Faire Bay Area returns for its 15th iteration!

Buy Tickets today! SAVE 15% and lock-in your preferred date(s).