Chasing the skill gap in craft

25 Feb 2024

I have increasingly been battling a feeling of failure in my work. It sounds overly dramatic to phrase it that way, but that’s the emotion I note myself leave my bench with increasingly often – the same feeling of ending a bout of songwriting or sketching only to feel like everything on the page is rubbish.

I know I’m not alone in this feeling, and in fact it is a universal part of the process of improving one’s craft, but the inherent conditions of the feeling are that it is isolating: all of us together in feeling alone. As this feeling ebbs, I’ve been trying to interrogate and understand it better, and talking to fellow craftspeople about what it looks like for them, and how to approach it sympathetically.

It’s not a new idea in creative fields, and perhaps most famously it’s been described by public radio host Ira Glass as a “gap” between one’s work and taste (this article covers his quote in more detail, unfortunately alongside an abuser and a transphobe). He describes this situation most creatives find themselves in where their taste is good, perhaps even great, but the work required to increase their skills to the point where they match that taste is grueling and often years or decades in the making. He’s not wrong, and I feel a similar sense of chagrin reading some of my early published articles, but I think there’s another element: our taste is not just a thing that exists, but something that is both ever informed by and inherently outgrows our skill level.

This has become most apparent to my own practice in making instruments, though I do find it rears its perfectionist head in other aspects of woodworking. I’ve been interested in making instruments for most of my adult life, but only in the past couple of years have I felt like I’ve had the woodworking knowledge to tackle the projects I’ve had in my head. For the most part, this has felt like a fair assumption: I’ve currently produced a couple of complete instruments from scratch, and have several others that I am in the process of experimenting with carving, detailing and finishing.

I’ve played guitars for almost my whole life, and had the privilege and pleasure of visiting a number of high end instrument stores and playing a range of beautiful and stunningly made models, and so approached my first couple of attempts with a sense of desire for a level of aesthetic and craft in my work, but it has been surprising how quickly doing this work has exponentially increased my own self-critique.

Glass uses the term taste to describe this feeling, an internal sense of what is and isn’t good, and there is an element of this to physical crafts, but I would argue that it is more of an experience of increased perception than style. I look at the details on my first guitar I built and they are functional, and in some cases well made, but I can see things now that I did not have the eyes to understand at the time I was working on it. More frustratingly, the work that I am currently halfway through completing – a french polished telecaster body wherein I’ve noticed some unevenness of the painted coating I did not see before; a carved neck where I can now feel a slight uneveness in shape that was unnoticeable when I worked on it a number of months ago; or a neck joint that looked tight to me six months ago but where the gaps now yawn like chasms.

None of these are about taste, I have not increased my desire for the realisation of these fine details, but rather my ability to note them at all is a direct result from my having continued to practice and build skills, and this ability improves relentlessly and faster than my physical crafting skills themselves develop.

The hardest lesson I am trying to learn through this process is to continue to work despite these shortcomings. The telecaster body is not perfect, with a lacking paint job, but the process of polishing a finish on the body is still worthwhile to practice and improve upon, lest I run into this issue on my next project having not practiced that skill enough either. The neck joint might be functional and be able to be hidden with a pickguard, or it might require the manufacture of a new neck, and both are a good practice in precision work of different kinds. Let alone that the habit of leaving a project half finished because of an earlier failure robs me of the chance to practice completing projects.

What do I do with this feeling? What do any of us do? I am working on listening to this feeling, learning from it, but not dwelling upon it. That feeling of fgailure can penetrate into your day to day and take over, and if it’s too overpowering we give up entirely. Instead, I’m trying to hold it in moderation, to learn from it: my taste, my perception, however you want to call it, it is what informs my ability to improve. Maybe I listen with a grain of salt, but I try to take whatever lesson is in there. I also am trying to commit regular time to the practice: it turns out that feeling of failure becomes less protracted if I feel like I am putting in time and work to improve.

So here I am, continuing to work, continuing to feel like I am not achieving the level of skill I wish I had, but also working with faith that my skill will continue to grow. What else can we do?


If this is something you’ve felt or are dealing with, I’d love to hear from you. Find me on BlueSky or via email.