Opportunity Cost

Opportunity Cost


Sometimes it is very hard to quit. Habits can be hard to quit. You know how to quit a habit? Make small incremental changes and repeat them consistently. You actually have to replace the habit with something else. You know what else is hard to quit? A project you have put time, money and energy into. The more resources spent, the harder it is to quit. We have a saying around the shop that goes like this: “Knife makers don’t make mistakes, just shorter knives.” But we do make mistakes, a lot of them all the time. Knowing how to fix mistakes or unexpected problems is essentially what it means to be good in any field of pursuit. What good is it if you can only work in optimal situations when everything is going as planned. It never does! Knowing when to quit is part of that same skill set.

The sunk cost fallacy is about the past, it is the fear of abandoning a project that we have invested resources in. Opportunity cost is about the future, it means that any time or material resource we put into one project is used to the exclusion of all other possibilities - of which there are often infinite choices. How the hell are we supposed to choose? And on top of this cripplingly complex choice moving forward, we have the weight of past unfinished projects holding us back. Adults tend to give disproportionate weight to our sunk costs, according to studies, more than animals and children. So you know that knife (or knives) that you have been working on that you have been stumped on forever, taking up space on the bench? GIVE UP. I know, I know - “Quitters never win and winners never quit” right? That is just so wrong. We all know the type of people that actually use the word “winners” and “losers” to describe others. Win all you want, just don’t do it around me.

Here’s the thing about that knife that you need to quit working on, and this goes for everyone with a project that is just not working out - a woodworking project, trying to finish writing a song, whatever. It’s not going to be that cool, or I should say, it’s not going to be as good as you think it is - and that’s ok! Who do you think you are? Someone who can properly plan and execute a project? I think not, at least I’m not. Every finished knife I produce has something wrong with it. All I can do is try to reduce the imperfections to the smallest amount. I must admit that there is a fine line between accepting imperfections in a handmade item as “adding character” and letting sloppy work slide and many makers use that excuse to be just lazy. However, there is another actual good reason to quit - the next project.

I have a drawer full of broken, warped or just bad knives that I call “The drawer of shame”. It’s a bad name because there’s nothing to be ashamed of but “The Drawer of Teaching Moments and Learning Opportunities” is an even worse name. The point is that I get rid of knives that aren’t working out regularly before trying to finish them. Not constantly but enough to have a drawer full. Many of the knives are in that drawer because of the heat treating process. Cracked or warped blades are the casualties of a deceitful and capricious mistress known as “The Quench”. Many souls are lost to the tank when using what seems to be the exact same process from one day to the next. Usually it works great but sometimes it’s just a disaster, in which case, just let it go.

This goes for guards and handle material too. It is way too easy to over-file a guard slot and I have seen way too many knives glued up anyway.It leaves an infinitely deep black hole of nothingness on either side of the blade where it meets the guard. Plus, crud can get down in there and you don’t want that. Throw the tiny little piece of metal away! It’s the time you have spent on the work that is keeping you from starting over but if you would have been more careful or smarter or just lucky then the damn thing would be perfect, but it’s not, so toss it. How about the most expensive single element of a knife, the handle material? Pin holes wallowed out, grain blow out, alignment issues and a hundred other things can ruin that $80 piece of exotic burl you snagged at a private Facebook group auction. And you only paid that much to beat the other guy that is always snaking your high bids at the last second! 

The hardest time to quit is when you’ve finished the handle shaping and you are basically finished with a knife that took many hours and multiple days with significant value invested - and you see a flaw. Not the kind of acceptable minute degree of imperfection but a big glaring gap or an ugly void in the burl that you could technically fill with resin but it would look like hot garbage. Or worse - and more common, you just messed up the shaping. You took too much off and you can't put it back. So what now? Of course sometimes you can remove the handle without destroying the blade, I’ve definitely done that and I believe I’ve saved more blades than I have trashed in that circumstance. 

But even at the end, we have to be willing to hold a project back from representing our work. It is critical to not value the short term gain over the long term reputation. Remember, this is the only way anyone knows if we produce quality work. Our reputation, which is the all important story that is told about us by others, is in a very real way more true than the story that we tell ourselves. Adults have all kinds of ways that we lie to ourselves and justify our shortcomings. It’s just too easy to tell ourselves that we are one kind of person then behave the opposite. Which is more important, who you think you are or how you act? Which one of those two versions produces all the consequences? When you make a real thing that people can judge, you might as well be honest with yourself about it.

In striving for the best we have to look at what is holding us back. One thing that is standing squarely in our way is too much information. In the same way that TMI can ruin a conversation at a casual party, too much information too soon can really distract a maker from having the patience to become at least proficient with the techniques they are currently working on before moving on. I’m not saying that we should completely avoid learning about the more advanced techniques when we enter a new hobby but you have to learn to walk before you can  run!

This actually takes us back to opportunity cost. What is it that makes us want to jump ahead so badly when we are clearly not finished learning the methods we currently use? Making another knife like the last one we made means that we give up the opportunity to get on to the new and interesting stuff over the next horizon. The new stuff is exciting but it's no fun to fail miserably because of our own hubris in thinking we were ready to try something we were clearly not. The easiest example that I can think of comes from our knife making classes at the Hardway Workshop. We allow participants to design their own knives as long as the shape is reasonable and achievable. The one thing that people ask to do that we consistently have to refuse is a double bevel. This simply means that both sides of the blade are sharpened and the bevels meet in the middle, creating the diamond profile of a dagger. It’s not obvious that this is a terrible idea to first time makers, but once they find out how impossibly difficult it is to grind a single bevel for the first time the prohibition makes more sense.

So how do we go about elevating our work, considering how often we wreck the whole thing? Make time to try new things and give yourself permission to fail. Ok, I know that is the exact opposite of what you just read, so sorry about that. Hopefully this will come together later. But really this is about finding a balance. I run a small production knife shop with a few guys working for me and I also manage a community shop for other knifemakers. Between making time for family, doing all the business grownup stuff and my actual work, it's busy. I often feel like experimenting with new designs and techniques is blowing off more important duties - like grinding 20 knives so the rest of the production team has something to do. My workaround is to set a realistic goal for the day and give myself whatever time is left over to experiment. It may be a custom order that I’m excited about or a weird damascus pattern I’d like to try, whatever. 

And as far as permission to fail, there is a concept in the art world known as a “Study”. This just means a practice piece in which the artist gets to play with concepts, materials or techniques before committing to the larger or more permanent piece. Making a study allows you to explore things that you are pretty sure won’t work, but just might, without a huge time commitment. I tend to do this with new damascus patterns, making a tiny little 2” blade in the pattern. That way if it sucks, no big deal. Non metallics like G-10 or Micarta are great for trying new bolster or guard ideas as they are so much easier and faster to work with than metals, plus we all have scraps laying around for free. Those phenolic materials are so tough that if the experiment works out, you can just go with it! 

We need to find the balance between patience and curiosity. It is critical to master the basics before moving on too quickly but even in the early stage of a pursuit we must allow for exploration. Both are true. It seems that respect and humility come into this in a big way. Respect for the process and humility about our place in it put us right where we need to be - on the border of practice and exploration, chaos and order. Many of us are better at having patience and understanding for others than for ourselves. Frustration at a project not working out comes from just that. So have patience with yourself. Forgive yourself for your shortcomings without making excuses. Try to do better. That’s really the best anyone can ask for.

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