Someone recently asked me if I thought I was better at building rods now than I was ten years ago. My answer? I sure hope so.
It sounds glib, I know, but let me explain a little bit because I actually think that, all joking aside, there’s an important lesson hiding in there.
One piece of great advice I got early on in my career was to focus on doing at least one thing better every year. It didn’t matter which thing. It could be making better ferrules, improving oxidation, making smoother grips, making better real seats, tinkering with a new taper design. And when I say focusing on improving one thing, I don’t mean just trying a bit harder. I’m mean sitting down, looking at how you currently do something, and trying to start from the ground up to see if there is a better way to do it. That’s the way this particular piece of advice was presented to me anyway — step back, try and see the big picture, and really think it through.
At the time, of course, I sort of thought this was a no-brainer. Well of course I want to build better rods, I thought to myself. Why wouldn’t I do something like this?
The thing is, when you are first starting out building rods you have to prove yourself as a builder, you want your craftsmanship to be recognized, and in many ways it’s easier to improve because you still have a lot to learn. You just have a lot more to improve upon.
It’s really after this first stage where this advice shows it’s merits. That’s because one of the more treacherous stages of being a rodmaker-at least where craftsmanship is concerned– really comes after you’ve established your reputation. You no longer worry as much about where the orders are going to come from. You feel reasonably confident in your ability to build a good rod. People speak well of your work, and once in a while the magazine writers will give you a ring. It feels pretty good, especially when you’ve worked really hard to get there.
The danger of course, is that you’ll think to yourself: Well, I’ve really got this rodbuilding thing licked now, and then of course, you’ll get complacent. Human nature being what it is, that sort of temptation is pretty natural, which is all the more reason why you should be careful to guard against it.
I was talking this over with Junior the other day and he was telling me this story about Ted Williams. In his heyday Williams was easily the most feared hitter in the league, the one the pitchers hated facing, and his reputation was about as secure as it could be. MVP, Batting Champion, future Hall-of-Famer, everything. Well the Red Sox were on the road one day and for some reason Williams was rooming with the backup catcher. At 2 am there was a titanic BOOM in the hotel room, and the poor catcher sprang out of bed and flipped on the light, only to see Williams standing there in his underwear with a bat in hand. Apparently he had gotten up in the middle of the night thinking about his swing, and was practicing in the dark when he accidentally hit the bedpost.
I absolutely love that story because I think it shows the kind of stick-to-itiveness neccessary not only to become really become good at something, but perhaps more importantly to stay good at something.
I also think it’s a great story in terms of one’s attitude toward improvement and how it happens (I told junior that if he wasn’t careful he might wake up in the middle of the night to find me casting a size 2 Thunder and Lightning at him just to test out a new Salmon rod taper). In the end, I think the goal for any craftsman should be to improve upon not only where you were 10 years ago or 20, but even where you were six months or a year ago. It’s a tall order, perhaps, but still one worth shooting for.
So, what’s my thing right now? It might seem silly but it’s ferrule plugs. I’m in the midst of working out a new twist on how I make them, one that I hope will make a nice little difference in how they work. It might not be a huge thing but it’s been done by stepping back and really rethinking how I make them, per the advice I received all those years ago.
We’ll see how it goes.
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