My dad is a carpenter. He’s been doing it for a long time.
Most of the things I know about building stuff come from him, and my grandfather. And, I’ve read a fair number of books and magazine articles and watched plenty of episodes of This Old House and whatnot.
I’m a pretty handy guy, and a pretty intelligent one, too. But inevitably, when it comes to building something, it takes me at least twice as long as it would for my dad. Most of that time goes into planning — I have to plan everything out, really carefully, before I go ahead and do it. (”Measure twice, cut once” and all that.)
Of course, this is no big surprise; he’s been at it for far longer than I have. But exactly why this is, what it is that he does or knows that I don’t, took me a long time to figure out. It’s not that he doesn’t plan ahead — of course he does; he has to. I get that from him. It’s that, unlike me, he has enough experience to know how to proceed in a way that he can make adjustments on the fly. He doesn’t have to plan everything out completely. He has to plan just enough, in just the right way so the next bit can adjust for what wasn’t quite right in this one.
This applies to making all kinds of things. With my mom, when she helped me re-cover my couch. She’ll freely admit she’s no master reupholsterer, but she’s done it far more often than I have. I would have had to plan for hours to get it all right. She just made a few measurements, started cutting up fabric, and forged ahead. She said, “Don’t backstitch at the ends of the seams in case we decide to rip them out and do it differently.”
I find this when I’m helping people cook. I’m a fair cook and so are some of my friends, but there are others who are afraid to chop vegetables or boil water. They’re paranoid about recipes and following things to the exact letter, and stress out when something isn’t explained to death. After you’ve cooked for a while like I have, though, you learn to adapt. Don’t have some particular ingredient? No biggie, we’ll subsitute something. Or maybe it’s not really vital to the dish at all. But without experience, these things are really hard to know.
It’s really humbling to work alongside someone who really knows what they’re doing. Their experience is crucial. Reading about how to do something, imagining how to do it, planning out how it will be done — these are all helpful to the novice, but they are no substitute, in any quantity, for the experience. There is a qualitative distinction between the two.