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Mark Frauenfelder

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The Courage to Screw Up: Why DIY Is Good for You

Posted: 05/28/10 09:13 AM ET

As the editor-in-chief of the do-it-yourself magazine Make, I've met scores of dedicated makers. They come from all walks of life -- rich, poor, young, old, male, female, religious, atheist, liberal, conservative. They're as varied as the things they make: kites with cameras, homebrew biodiesel, treehouses with ziplines, cigar box guitars, remote-control lawnmowers, automatic cat-feeders, high-altitude water rockets, robotic blimps, worm composting systems, stylish plywood furniture, pinhole cameras, experimental surfboards, solar water heaters, portable drive-in movie projectors -- there's no limit to their aspirations. And while no two DIYers are alike, in general they're an upbeat and friendly group that shares a special trait: the courage to screw up.

Being able to accept, even embrace, your mistakes is far from easy. In school, we learn that mistakes translate into bad grades. This unfortunate lesson gets burned into our brains, and we go through life shunning challenges that might end in failure. But DIYers not only accept the inevitability of mistakes, they welcome them, because they know that mistakes are a source of inspiration and the most effective way to learn. The latest research in neuroscience supports this idea.

Through my own DIY efforts, which I chronicle in my new book, Made By Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World (Portfolio), I've gotten better at facing my own fear of mistakes. For the past couple of years, I've spent time with my favorite "Alpha makers" to learn how they do what they do. I've never been very handy myself, but since making the decision to take a more active role in the world around me, I've begun raising chickens (in a coop I built myself), keeping bees (lured out of the attic of my new house and into a full-scale hive), and growing vegetables (where my lawn used to be). I've hacked my espresso maker for the perfect brew, built musical instruments for impromptu home concerts, erected a treehouse for my daughters, and tutored them in the sorts of hands-on skills our schools desperately need to teach, but don't.

Along the way, I've made an astronomical number of blunders. But the broken tools, barked knuckles, wasted materials, and countless trips to the hardware store have been a small price to pay for the fun and fulfillment my family and I have experienced. From my own DIY experiences and from researching the lives of other DIYers, I've discovered five benefits you gain from having the courage to screw up:

  1. A deeper connection to the things that keep us alive and well. The human-made world is mostly beyond our comprehension. Our daily survival depends on seemingly magical gizmos that provide our food, water, clothing, comfort, transportation, education, well-being, and amusement. But you can make your world a little less confounding by sewing your own clothes, raising chickens, growing vegetables, teaching your children, and doing other activities that put you in touch with the processes of life. In addition, the things you make reflect your personality and have a special meaning. You share a connection with them every time you use them, and you appreciate them in a different way than you do store-bought things. This is why gifts of hand-made preserves, blankets, and furniture are so cherished. You are sharing a part of yourself with the recipient of your gift; they will value the time and effort you put into making something for them with your own hands far more than what it would have took to pick up a gift card at the mall.
  2. An appreciation for the things you have and the systems that make it possible.The flip side to enjoying the things you make yourself is discovering how challenging and time-consuming it can be to make them. It takes me hours to whittle one cooking spoon, and while it's enjoyable, I can't imagine making all of our family's cooking implements this way. Now, I pay more attention to the things I buy, and I appreciate them more than before. Because I've become an active participant in the human-made world, I'm more observant of it. I care more about how things are made, paying close attention to each object for lessons in craftsmanship I can apply to my own projects.
  3. An opportunity to use your hands and your brain. Human beings evolved opposable thumbs for a reason. The sense of reward you get from making something with your hands can't be earned any other way. It's obvious that people learn faster from "hands-on" experience than they do watching someone else do something. (No wonder kids ask, "Can I try?" when they see their parents using a tool or appliance.) And when people engage in DIY activities like knitting, their heart rate and blood pressure go down. We are tool-using animals and our bodies feel better when we've got tools in our hands.
  4. A connection to other people. When I started making cigar box guitars, I stumbled onto a group of DIYers at a website called Cigar Box Nation. These amateur luthiers log in from around the world to share plans, photos, and videos of their home-made stringed instruments. They are happy to share ideas and advice about building guitars, banjoes, and ukuleles with newcomers. I've found this same spirit of generosity at other online hangouts devoted to building electric vehicles, autonomous aerial vehicles, and raising chickens. Even though time is our most precious resource, I've discovered that DIYers are happy to give their own time to people who seek their knowledge. (At Make, we are exploring this admirable quality of DIYers as a way to rethink traditional educational systems.)
  5. A path to freedom. A number of DIYers I've met have succeeded in turning their passion for making things from a hobby into a business. In this era of economic uncertainty, DIYers have learned not to rely as much on governments and corporations to take care of them. They seek a more direct way to support themselves by becoming producers of high-quality, short-run products. For instance, Limor Fried transformed her passion for electronics into a full-time business called Ada Fruit that sells mail-order kits to hobbyists. Mitch Altman made a little remote control that could turn off any TV set, and it was so popular he started a company that sells electronic gadgets. Sites like Etsy.com and the Makers Market give DIYers a place to sell their handmade creations, ranging from hollow "spy coins" to silkscreened posters to revolving bookcases to chaotic pendulums. Even if you have no desire to become a full-time maker, DIY can provide a certain degree of freedom from depending on others for everything you need.

The DIY movement is growing every year, with no signs of slowing down. In May, Make held its fifth annual Maker Faire in San Mateo, California, where 95,000 people came to celebrate the unique rewards of DIY. This year, Maker Faire is also coming to Detroit and New York. I hope you can come and participate in the transformative power of DIY.

Mark Frauenfelder is the editor-in-chief of Make magazine, and the founder of the popular Boing Boing blog. He was an editor at Wired from 1993-1998, and is the author of six books. His latest book is Made By Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World.

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