Why I (Almost) Always First do and Then Learn

I have an acute case of opinions, and I have a platform. Therefore I am going to inflict them on you. Lets get ready to ramble…

During my life I have learned a lot of different stuff – building and installing computers and programming in VBA as well as masonry, plumbing, carpentry etc. Jack of all trades and all that. That is nothing exceptional, most homeowners here have at least the basic of some of those skills. But some of the skills that I have tried or intend to try my hand on – like knife-making, leather work or wood carving – require not only a lot of finicky skill, but also a lot of knowledge.

My approach to acquiring said knowledge was, is, and will remain, maybe somewhat illogical from an outsider’s point of view, but I found out that it works the best for me. I hasten to add though, that I am only using it when there are not real stakes regarding safety and/or urgency to be had in the matter – if there are, I pay for experts and craftsmen to do the job quickly and properly the first time.

That approach is this – I start with some rudimentary knowledge and dive right into it, start big, fail on so many levels and end up with a result that has so many flaws that it is pitiful at best (like my first knife, that I regrettably lost).  Then I think about what went wrong, read some more information, try again, start again big, fail a bit less and get something that I need not be ashamed of, although it is of course still very short of being a masterpiece, even an “apprenticepiece” – like my second knife:

©Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

All those failures do not stop me of course from ramping up the ambitions for the next project(s), where I learn from my previous mistakes and boldly introduce completely new ones. Like in the knife I have made for my father’s fiftieth birthday and a knife I made for myself:

©Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.


©Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

And so on and so forth. Only after each failure, will I really seriously start to research and read some serious theory on the things that I just tried to do and see what the actual craftsmen have to say. And through this process, where I first try, fail and then read, I eventually get to something half-decent, like Ciri’s dagger, which nevertheless is still somewhere in the middle of my learning curve (and probably everything ever will be).

One reason for this approach is fairly mundane – books are expensive, our local library is crap and internet with a lot of information freely available was not a thing for first half of my life. But I hold onto it even now – for example I will start reading on leather work only after I actually start to do some work in it, not before (I have actually done some small leather work – the two last sheaths shown, but nevermind). The same plan goes for engraving metal, or inlaying etc. Why do I persist in this manner of doing things, where I inevitably reinvent the wheel multiple times over? Could I not save myself a lot of trouble and time learning the theory first? After all, that is how a lot (not all) of our school system works – a huuuge chunk of theory upfront and then maybe some medium to big-ish chunk of praxis.

Well, even discarding the fact that reinventing the wheel for yourself is tremendous fun, and having fun is the whole purpose of a hobby, I think following chunks of praxis with theory and not vice versa has a practical advantage as well, at least for me.

I have read first three books out of my new purchases, those on the left in the picture. Most of the info in them was not new to me since I already tried like 90% of the techniques shown and I knew all the theory. So I only got about 10% worth of new knowledge, which does not seem like much – just a few tricks, really. But if I started with only these books without having any clue whatsoever about how thinks work in praxis, I would get a lot less out of them on first reading, most of the content would go over my head and I would forget it straightaway. And when later on trying to put the things into praxis, I would have to get back to them and re-read them, maybe multiple times, whilst trying the things and failing at them anyway. Whereas having a lot of failures and intuitive understanding as well as theoretical knowledge of the matter already has allowed me to read them fairly quickly and absorb the little info that I did not yet have much more permanently (I think) because it connects smoothly with my past experience and knowledge.

There is of course one trapping to this “try first” approach, and a big one, that should be avoided – developing bad work habits that have to be un-learned. The distance between trying something and learning the accompanying theory should not be too big either way, because it is detrimental to learning both ways.


  1. says

    The only question that I have is why you think that this is so unusual…
    I probably learn more from fixing my mistakes than anything else…
    And I especially like the last knife.

  2. says

    Books are a lot less expensive than the time it takes to acquire knowledge without them. There’s always opportunity and materials costs: the time spent making mistakes and the materials consumed in the mistakes.

    That said, I also use a hybrid approach to learning things -- I’ll dip my toes and just try something, so I experience the most typical failure mode(s) and that prepares me to understand why the books say “don’t do ${what I just did}” Reinforcement learning comes from being able to understand why certain things work and others don’t.

    My old friend Andrew always used to say “hours in the darkroom can save you minutes in the library” regarding photography (specifically film development and printing) I think that’s right; there’s a balance between “just try it!” and doing research first. Of course the downside of the “research first” approach is that you wind up orienting toward higher entry-cost gear, because the gear a professional uses will tend to be more expensive. There’s where the question of “bad habits” comes in -- you can maim yourself with some of this stuff if you’re not careful so there’s a balancing act between overspending on safety/quality and building it yourself. For me the question is always whether I am willing to invest another 10 years in learning something. If I’m not, then it’s not worth spending the money or the time doing the research.

  3. says

    PS -- I love to see the progression in work!

    I know a knife-maker who threw away his first knife because he knew that when he got good people would ask to see it.

  4. kestrel says

    I’ve pretty much always had to learn all on my own because there WERE no books on what I wanted to learn how to do. Or people who did it, for that matter. (How many horsehair braiders have you met in your life? Although these days it’s almost become a “thing” and there are now a few out there.) Charly is so right, it makes you learn it really well and from the inside out. Also, if you are learning on your own, you don’t have anyone there to tell you “That right there that you’re trying to do? That’s impossible” and since you don’t KNOW that it’s impossible, sometimes you can figure out how to do it. No preconceived notions.

    The truth is though that if I have the chance, I far prefer to learn from watching someone else. Failing that reading a book is great. Although I do think there are benefits to doing something all on your own, there are also quite a lot of benefits from learning from someone else. For one thing it’s much faster!

  5. says


    Books are a lot less expensive than the time it takes to acquire knowledge without them.

    Depends. For someone who has good disposable income, sure. For someone who lives from paycheck to paycheck, like I did first thirty years of my life, not so much. Because in both cases your day has 24 hours, but in one case you have money for books and in the second you just simply do not, no matter how much time they could potentially save you. So you can be forced to use your time ineffectually just by not being able to afford doing othervise.

    To quote Terry Prattchet on similar issue on how poor people are forced to used their money ineffectualy as a simple consequence of being poor:

    The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

    Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

    But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

    Which, incidentally, is an obstacle to education even here in CZ where we do not have tuition fees at all, because students at universities have to buy their own books (libraries do not have sufficient capacity, so they are not of much real help -- it is a matter of luck to get the book you need). When I was studying, I had sometimes had to decide whether to eat or to buy a book. Literally.

  6. Ice Swimmer says

    The way I mostly do things is trying to come up with something first and then looking for info in books, documentation of the interwebs. But then again, I do fairly little stuff directly with my hands (some woodworking or electronics every now and then). Of course, if anything I’m doing involves dangerous voltages or currents, I will not touch anything until I know what I’m doing and I know it’s safe.

    It’s also here often a matter of luck to get a book (but I’ve been mostly lucky and in my current studies, I have never needed to try looking for a book in other libraries than the University library here), but for many courses, the slides and (nowadays online) compendiums provided by professors are enough. There used to be a system of paper compendiums, which you ordered at the beginning of the semester and paid a reasonable sum to the Student Union-owned company that printed them and you got them delivered to your hanging file.

  7. says

    It is not. But it is frowned upon.

    I think this goes back to what I said in teaching about inductive vs. deductive approach. Ideally you nowadays let kids think for themselves and help them to figure out the “right” way (though I still think that occasionally a good explanation is the best thing.
    Also, no amount of reading can teach fine motor skills. I love youtube videos, but you can be damn sure that whatever they’re showing you, making it look easy is the result of hours and hours of practise and incredible amounts of failure. There’s a couple on youtube whose videos I enjoy and one of their merch t-shirts says “Make fail, make fail, make” and I think that captures it well.
    Also, I don’t know if it’s just me, but written instructions just don’t work for me unless I already know what I’m doing. Written plus pictures works better, but I don’t know how many times I gave up on the instructions, figured it out myself and then came back to the instructions thinking “oh that’s what they meant!

  8. Jazzlet says

    That understanding the instructions because you know enough to do so is certainly true for knitting, but even now I’ll read some instructions and think ‘what?!?!?’ then try with needles and yarn to find the instructions do make sense. Or very occasionally they don’t because someone hasn’t been acurate with writing down their pattern, which can be a problem on Ravelry.

  9. avalus says

    Depends on the circumstances, I would say. I agree with the persons above.
    When I teach chem-lab safety to students, the narrative is “Learn first -- then do!”. But before they get to handle anything risky, they learn hands on to handle glassware, balances and stuff, so they do the “do-stuff” as well.

    Also, your first knives look really nice. I can only say this for myself but I like looking at older stuff I made and realize the way I came.

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