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Als ik Kan: honoring your craft

Furniture builder Gustav Stickley's motto defines craftsmanship, whether you're cutting wood or audio. There's much to be gained from making it your own.

(Preface: I used to write a column for EQ Magazine titled “Guest Room Warrior," about the challenges of working as a one-man, home-based music producer.  This blog post is based on one of those columns.)

We have the best jobs in the world. But that doesn’t mean we don’t end up doing work we’re not entirely crazy about. We all catch the occasional bad project:  ill focused, poorly led, under-funded, and over-managed. Whatever the reason, those bad ones can overshadow the good ones.

I can’t speak for all game disciplines, but I know for sure that audio guys – sound designers, composers, and engineers – have a long history of slacking off when a project goes south. We mutter under our breath, cut corners, let crummy ideas stand hoping we won’t get busted, do a half-baked mix, and generally hold our breath until the screeching mess is over. We imagine our bad clients as dopes and chuckleheads, incapable of understanding our own vast and arcane knowledge. It drains the fun from life, and we usually end up with work that makes us cross our fingers and hope no one learned we did it.

But a few years ago, I ran across a simple idea that helped me through those dark days, and it came from the unlikeliest of sources:  woodworking.

The source is unlikely only because I am the world’s worst handyman:  “measure 3 times and cut it wrong anyway” is how I roll. But I love and recognize good craftsmanship.  Watching Norm Abrams on The New Yankee Workshop is my idea of a hella good time.  There’s something inspiring about someone who works calmly and thoroughly, knowing that if each step is performed precisely, the finished product will be perfect.  (Or, as Norm refers to it in his laconic New England style, sliding a mortise into a tenon that appears to fit to aircraft tolerances, “pretty good.”)

Unfortunately, making sound isn’t like cutting wood.  In Norm’s world, it’s either 16 and 5/16” inches, or it’s not.  We don’t have the luxury of objectivism.  Still, Norm’s work led me to another, more celebrated craftsman who’s motto changed my approach.

His name was Gustav Stickley, and he hand-built some of the most sought-after furniture built by any American craftsman, and founded a company that still bears his name.  Stickley’s designs are timeless because he didn’t care about fashion or flash.  His only goal was to build a useful, beautiful piece that would last for generations.  He worked to please himself even more than others.

The evidence of this is the paper label he would glue to an unseen surface, his logo so to speak, which contained his name and the motto “Als ik Kan,” which translates roughly as “to the best of my ability” or “the best I can.”

I like to remind myself of Stickley’s label when I’m on the verge of not caring.  Sure, there’s a lot of what we do that is "creative," but there’s a level of craftsmanship here, too.  Even if we’re not allowed to perform at our peak, there are still timing concerns and mix issues that we should address… not because the project demands (or even deserves) it, but as a matter of pride.

You deserve your best work.  You deserve the pleasure of working, as Norm does, calmly and thoroughly, and the security of knowing, as Stickley did, that regardless of the challenge, you have done your very best.

I’m not preaching… I’ve spent just as many hours cursing bad clients as anyone.  This is just a reminder that our lives are enriched when we can paste a label on our work that reads “Als ik Kan.”

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