As I sit in my tiny cubicle trailer on the Forged in Fire set between Doug Marcida's "Keel" test with the other contestant I can't help but think back on how I got here.  I was only seriously making knives a couple years before being called to participate on season 2 of Forged in Fire. Ben Abbott won that competition and went on to win other episodes and eventually become a judge on the show. I'm back after 5 years to try again, but with greater experience comes a much greater challenge. This isn't a regular FIF episode, it is a Beat the Unbeaten episode. I'm here to beat the guy who beat me. 

How can I explain the emotions that are at war within me when doing something like this. Excitement turns into anxiety easily accompanied by notes of sheer terror. My heartbeat is irregular, I have to pee every 5 minutes and sleep? Never heard of her. Time moves between very structured and slow monotony to extreme chaos and intensity. I go from sitting in an air conditioned trailer nervously snacking to being thrust in the highest level of competition in my field, abruptly. As a contestant, you are kept isolated, oblivious to how things are progressing so that when you emerge from your hiding place, they lead you into a set with a lit forge and call "Bladesmiths, your time starts now!" It can be disorienting at the least and nervous breakdown inducing at worst. 

The feeling of working in front of the cameras for a huge television audience to see is nerve wracking as well. I know that any little slip up or mistake will be highlighted and even the boring elements of the process will be dramatised. But in the end it is worth it, not for the exposure or fame (there's surprisingly less of that than you might imagine) but to test myself. Not so much against other makers, but against myself. Can I execute the plan that I have settled on in the timeframe? If I do my job well then I will succeed, if not I will fail. That's it. 

In the shop at home I get as many do-overs as I want. It may cost more time and money but ultimately my reputation rests on the quality of the final product. On Forged in Fire, the result of the challenge in the time frame and my ability to perform under pressure is all that matters.

So I'll wait in my tiny trailer room to go back in to see what happens during testing and I will take it like a man. I will hide my shaking and clammy hands. I will smile gladly when things go well and smile wryly when things do not. I will return home knowing that I did the best I could, even though there are many ways I could have done better. I'm still learning and improving and there is hope in that. Regardless of the outcome, it is an incredible experience. But I want to win real bad.

If I win, there won't be much to talk about. There's no real need to go back and criticize my actions if everything works out for the best. If I lose then there will probably be quite a bit of "if only's". I'll try to just let it go and not worry too much about it. The experience has been great yet again and I have a loving family and exciting career ahead. I can tell myself the experience was worth it either way and it's better to try and fail than not try at all, but it's the 2am moments I'm not looking forward to. Those times when you wake up at an unreasonable hour, not able to go back to sleep. Nothing to do but stare at the ceiling and relive past mistakes. Other than fret about future challenges, that is. Although it's not good to dwell too long on regrets, we all do it so I suppose there must be some utility in it. Maybe spending a lot of time thinking about failures helps us do our best not to repeat them. Or maybe, I should just get over it.

Competition is an unavoidable part of any endeavor. It seems to push us to our best, driving us past what we thought were our limits. Like any area of human interaction, competition has its benefits and pathologies. Of course in the knife industry there are many types of competitions, Forged in Fire being so obvious that it needs not be elaborated on. We compete with our friends and shop mates on specific techniques. Who’s got the best hamon? Who’s blades display the most advanced construction? It doesn’t matter exactly what but we compare and judge others' work against our own - and we should! The trick is to respect the human behind the work, avoiding jealousy. I don’t know why this is but among knife makers who I consider my peers, I feel a greater sense of competition with some makers than others. I’m not sure but it is possible that I compete more intensely with those that I have the most in common with - either personally or professionally. Maybe it's something like: the closer in demographic and skill another maker is to me, the more they threaten to usurp the niche I have carved out for myself. That sounds pretty reasonable I suppose.

Then there is the professional side of competition. There is the race to become Journeyman and Mastersmith in the ABS, the comparative amount of business that we are doing, the size of our shops and quality of our equipment. I like to look at knife makers and companies that are ahead of me as aspirational. I see things I would like to emulate and other strategies that are not right for me. I like to say that there are many business coaches and professional strategy books but no one has ever built the business I am making right now. There is no road map for how Join or Die Knives gets to the destination - wherever that takes us. Likewise, whether you are endeavoring to build a very common or quite rare type of business, no one has ever done it the exact way you will have to. The important thing is that we use that friendly competition to help push us toward our best. 

The evil social media monster rears its head as the most unhealthy and unconstructive version of comparison. Professional accomplishments and great reputations are real measures of success, social media is a lie. A huge following on Instagram and Facebooks means that you are good at marketing yourself on those platforms and nothing else. Social media popularity can be one indicator of success but does not amount to much on its own. I don’t begrudge people for punching above their real world weight class on social media and I try to portray my own company as best I can, creating interesting content while being authentic. It is just so important to not get too wrapped up in it. People are literally killing themselves over this crap and it is just not worth it. In any case, it is an inevitable reality in today’s world that social media has become the main avenue for reaching customers and building awareness about your work. Like fire, it is very powerful and should be handled carefully.

Here’s a novel thought: How about let’s strive to outdo one another in showing honor? Lets make our competition about integrity, excellence and cooperation. I really do get the sense in most of the knife making community that those with the highest reputations are the ones that are the most generous in sharing knowledge, the most encouraging while being makers of stunning works of craftsmanship. When someone is only in it for “Number 1” that becomes clear to people quickly. In the same way authenticity can’t be faked, at least not for very long. The truth is, none of us can be that perfect image of the generous and humble master smith. Most of us are just trying to figure out how to make knives better! But we really can fake it till we make it. Little steps like reaching out to support a nonprofit, taking on an apprentice, opening our shops to others for hammer-ins or demos can go a long way. Who knows? Taking positive steps for our business could even help us grow personally and establish more lasting mature relationships. If we don’t wreck everything that is. 

The truth is that although there are thousands of knifemakers in the US alone, the demand for handmade knives seems to outpace supply and is growing faster than the amount of qualified makers is increasing. For example, one new episode of Forged in Fire or one viral post of a very handsome hawaiian man dropping a guava on a knife while his incredible hair flows down beside the blade (oddly specific, I know) can bring awareness of handmade knives to a few thousand people in a day. On the other hand, it takes years to become proficient enough to make knives good enough to sell so the constantly increasing demand is growing faster than new makers can be created.

Now we need to talk about the Matthew principle. This is the effect of cumulative advantage as Jesus laid out in Matthew 25:29:

For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

This is echoed in several verses in the New Testament and shown to be true in nature, economics and even physics. Regardless of how you feel about the bible, it tends to describe things about human nature and reality itself that are demonstrably true. The Matthew effect shows up in the most obvious way in income distribution where the rich get richer but it is also displayed in the universe where a small number of supermassive stars have the largest proportion of mass. As a star’s mass increases, so does its gravity, pulling more objects into itself. This effect is displayed in the fact that most of our communication uses under one thousand different words out of over 500,000 possible. The largest trees have access to most of the sunlight and water in an environment. In hierarchical animal societies, a small proportion of dominant males pass on most of the DNA to the next generation. Most popular scientific papers are generated by a small minority of successful researchers and the vast majority of popular orchestral performances were written by just four composers. The list of empirical evidence for this principle is staggering and we are confronted with the inherent unfairness and inequality of our world. 

This inequality is so deeply imbedded in our reality that there is math involved. (Why God, why?) The Pareto distribution is a probability metric that measures this phenomenon. I won’t list the equation because I don’t really understand it but trust me, I’ve listened to some TED Talks about it so I’m basically an expert. Go look up all the things that this principle applies to, it is seriously ridiculous. So yes, life is not fair. But I would argue that the tension created by inequality is the catalyst for transformation. I want to do better, I am not the best I could be, there is infinite potential for improvement and its actually not ALL my fault that I’m not king of the world by now.

It is no wonder that there is a small group of knifemakers who seem to get the most attention and are able to charge much more than everyone else and still have a long wait list. Fortunately in this industry the majority of top makers are clearly at the highest level of skill and not just arbitrarily popular. There are of course quite a few amazing makers that don’t seem to have the attention they deserve and some very popular makers are pretty mediocre. Success in the handmade knife business clearly takes more than clean grind lines, if I figure out what that is I’ll be sure to let you know.

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1 comment
  • When we met in Richmond at the bluegrass festival a few years ago, you impressed me with your story, where you came from and where you were headed. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your journal entry about your return to FIF and what you went through, detailing your philosophy of work and life in the process. I’m now the proud owner of a meticulously crafted EDC knife from your shop. Thank you for your dedication to the craft.

    Robin Swanson on

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