(Somewhat) Risky Business



I keep saying that this blog will transition into more of a daily blow-by-blow, but not today. Today I want to try to explain why projects like this are so enervating.

The life of a self-employed artist or craftsperson can feel a lot like the image above. A bit risky. Craftsman and rock climber extraordinaire Niels Davis took the shot of the uber-talented local furnituremaker Geoffrey Keating, full time proprietor of Keating Woodworks, as well as Sacred Spaces, occasional climber, and for sure a hearty explorer of what I call a "lifestyle of risk", my twist on woodworker David Pye's "workmanship of risk" (vs "workmanship of certainty").

If you haven't seen the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, starring Will and Jaden Smith, stop reading this post, because, spoiler alert, I'm about to talk about the movie's climactic scene.

The film has some tear-jerker moments, like when Chris Gardner's son tells him he's a good dad. But the scene where Chris is called into the office after completing a rigorous, unpaid internship at a stock brokerage and told that out of a large group of contenders, he's been chosen to work for the company - that's powerful.

The scene brought back the times that I'd be hired for a project, during the years between 1998 and 2005 when I was self-employed as a custom props builder, working out of my current 400 sf. back yard studio.

Every time a client chose to hire me, I'd experience the euphoria of the knowledge that we'd passed through another financial pinch. Because in truth, self employment as I've experienced it, especially in the early going, could be called a succession of periods of being employed and being laid off - laid off and wondering when and if a next job will come down the pike.

The first time I was hired occurred on September 16, 1998 -  my wife's first day off from the job she'd held for over a decade - a resignation she initiated primarily because she desired to stay at home and raise the kids.

The second time it happened, just weeks later, was just as memorable to me. The designer who'd often hire the person who I'd just finished subbing for asked if I would consider working for her myself on a small set project.

I clearly recall the emotions that accompanied being asked, in essence, if I'd be interested in starting my own business, which would allow me to work from the very space out back I'd talked with my wife about just weeks prior, wondering aloud what I might be able to do out in that small shop, working with my hands, that might pull in enough of an income to provide for the family after she quit work.

The prospect of working from my home shop under my own shingle was being handed to me. Was I interested? Absolutely, I was.

There's a well-known concept that David Pye, Professor of Furniture Design at the Royal College of Art from 1964 - '74, advanced called the "workmanship of risk" (as opposed to the "workmanship of certainty").

It involves the risk involved in work that's done where the quality of the finished product depends on the judgment, dexterity, and care of the maker - where the quality of the result is continually at risk during the work's creation - as opposed to work of a more, shall I say, automated, or predetermined, kind.

I'm proposing that there's a somewhat similar idea involved in living the life of the self-employed craftsman or artist, where day to day decisions effect the resulting quality, and  perhaps possibility, of one's lifestyle. There's an inclination within many people, and for sure within me, that involves such a lifestyle of risk, if I may. A predisposition toward a lifestyle whose existence/continuance/advancement hinges not on the health of the stock of one's employer, say, but more directly on one's own personal talents, abilities, craftsmanship, and decision making, both in the macro and micro senses, day in and day out. (As the designer who hired me would say, "you're only as good as your last project")

The moment I was, in effect, asked if I'd like to enter more fully into such a lifestyle of risk (though I couldn't have articulated it as such as the time) doesn't hold a candle to the moment in Chris Gardner's story when he's hired as a stockbroker, and in some ways it's nearly the opposite, as that moment, for Gardner, was one that rewarded him, by offering him a way out of the lifestyle of risk he'd just passed through. For Gardner, that climactic moment was one where he entered into a "lifestyle of (relative) certainty" - still one dependent on his abilities and performance, as all employment does, but one giant leap out of the stress and duress he'd just lived through, due in some measure to a huge rolling of the dice.

For me and my situation, however, when I was asked if I'd take on a (from my current perspective) relatively small project, man, it was like I'd won the Powerball lottery.
In part, that feeling was because we'd soon be receiving some income that would keep our family afloat for a while longer. But beneath that, there was also an excitement because the possibility of entering more fully into a lifestyle of risk - of starting my own business - was being offered to me. 

What does all that have to do with a studio build? Well, for one thing, it's always a bit risky to go into debt, though I console myself with the thought that whatever money we'll be pulling out of our equity will increase the value of our property, should we choose to sell it one day. We're not going to use the funds to buy a Porsche or take a cruise around the world.

But primarily, I think that projects like this, where the outcome isn't certain and the risk - though a carefully calculated risk - is guaranteed, is just the sort of thing I groove to, at least, between periods of relative rest (when I wonder what the heck I was thinking). 

Risk is, after all, part and parcel of life - there's no avoiding it. But it's possible to wall yourself up and avoid risking much. 

There's a time for every season, turn, turn, turn. But if that's so, then there's a time to put on the harness, tie in, and start climbing.

So I ask you - where do you think you fall on the "lifestyle of risk - lifestyle of certainty" continuum? 

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