Taking Pains

quote-genius-is-an-infinite-capacity-for-taking-pains-thomas-carlyle-31782There are several ways to perform almost any act—an efficient, workable, artistic way and a careless, indifferent, sloppy way. Care and artistry are worth the trouble.― Helen Nearing

From my earliest memories, I can remember being urged to “take pains.” My paternal grandmother would say, “Kerry, you need to take pains to practice the piano” or “Take more pains with that embroidery.” I didn’t really understand this—did making something need to hurt?

As I grew older, I started to understand what it meant, really. I wanted to make things and I tended to rush, to get on to making the next thing. But my grandmother, and other family members and teachers, would tell me to slow down, do it well, take pains. It didn’t mean anything needed to hurt but I that I had to work against my impulse to rush, and that took control and self-discipline.

When I was studying jewelry making and metal smithing as an undergraduate, our teacher would assign grades based on both design and craftsmanship or, in other words, taking pains. I’ve never thought myself to be particularly creative, in terms of coming up with new designs or ideas. I could work to make my designs less predictable and derivative but other students had flashes of brilliance that escaped me.

But I could be the most painstaking. No file marks left on the metal for me! No globs of solder or poorly set stones.

Similarly, when I took up quiltmaking, I used time-tested, traditional patterns but learned to do the piecing and quilting by hand and tried to make the tiniest, most even stitches possible.

Now, none of this has come easy to me. I love marking things off my to-do list—finish the candy, put the binding on the quilt, post a blog entry, be productive. I need to fight my impulse to do things just to get them done. I cannot do quickly and do well; I know that about myself.

Taking pains, I think, is at the heart of craftsmanship. Thomas Carlyle said that, “Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains” and, while I think there’s more to genius than being painstaking, taking pains is the part we really have control over.

This approach has served me well; what I lack in creative insight, I’ve found I can make up for in craftsmanship. I can pay attention to detail; I use a set of skills, which are available to all of us, but try to use them exceptionally well. I can take pains.

I’m not talking about perfection here. I am, after all, a human being and we are not meant for perfection. Tolstoy told us that, “If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content,” and contentment is very high on my list of achievable personal goals.

Rather, I’m saying that I work hard to do my best at the things that are meaningful to me and that I have control over. I want my work to reflect the human behind it but a human striving to do her best. And what I’ve realized is that we need to take pains with all kinds of human skills—writing, making, doing, thinking, and relating to others.

When I consider the people I admire most, they are the ones who take pains to be kind to others, to make relationships strong, to do their best work, whether that work is in the kitchen, the classroom, the boardroom, the workshop, the studio. These are the people who commit fully to whatever task they are engaged in and take pains to do it well.

I strive to be one of them.


17 thoughts on “Taking Pains

  1. It’s amazing how much more you’ll get out of a piece when you take the time and do it right. And customers will see the extra attention to detail. I’m like you, I like to cross things off my list. But I want them done right…not fast.

  2. It’s in my nature to work in a dedicated way. I guess that’s why it’s taking ages to get my Etsy shop stocked up 😉 I can help it, I simply can’t do a rush job!

    • That is the downside of taking pains! Especially when everyone in the forums is saying you need to have lots of items on your shop, in order to get any business! I guess we have to know that it will all pay off . . . eventually.

  3. I think that is so important, especially in the handmade community when artists are striving for quality versus quantity. It’s so easy to be caught up in doing things quickly because it’s cheaper to cut corners, but I am definitely a proponent of “taking pains” the first time and doing it right!

    • You put that so well! Sometimes I look at handmade items online and just shake my head at the range of quality–some so incredibly fine and some so sloppy. I hope buyers can tell the difference . . .

  4. For some reason this reminds of “a stitch in time saves nine” that I heard as a child and it took me years to understand the meaning 🙂 Annie

  5. How I ejoyed your story! Developing creative skills and going through the process of indeed ‘creating’ is important and also personal. Your remark ‘I work hard to do my best at the things that are meaningful to me’ is touching. It shows, you bring out the best of yourself and have care for the world and people around you. Thank you for sharing, have great weekend! ♥ Johanna

  6. Taking pains. Yep, I have heard that all my life from my Mom and Grandmother. Hard for me to do since I have gotten older. Hard to concentrate at times and in our fast paced world it seems to be all about instant gratification. So nice to slow down and just create. I know when I am satisfied and have taken pains to do a good job.

    • The older I get the more I feel like should rush, to get things done so I can do new things! And, yes, our world seems to push us toward doing things fast, as if it were easy. I can tell by your posts that you’re a “pains-taker”, too!

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