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.