What Do We Really Know?

by | Apr 12, 2013

Do we really know, or do we just want? Do we have what we have because it fills a need?

Often when discussing things – sporting goods, films, cars, apparel, art, food, as well as that most dreaded of things, the etcetera – people take sides or make lists. The Top Ten of this. The Most Sought After of that. We find examples. A musician whose sound is inextricably linked to a particular instrument maker. An athletic achievement attributed to a pair of sneakers as much as to the person lacing them up. And we justify. Reputations, belief systems, and some empires are built upon lore. People cling to things. It’s nuts.

I have spent many years making bicycles. As any craftsman would, I do my best to remain focused and to improve. The first thirty years were actually trying and, at times, depressing. That’s how long it took for me to get comfortable with my learning curve, my processes, and the diminishing rate of speed at which epiphanies came (and what to do with them). I wrestled with where I fit into the bigger picture and wondered endlessly about the market. By contrast, the ten years after the first thirty have been extremely easy. I now accept more than I challenge. Rather than wrestle with material, or boundaries, or clients, I have become comfortable just letting things, tolerances, and relationships find their own level. If a particular detail goes awry, I don’t fight it, I let it go, and widen my attention span the very next day. Paying attention is simple when you just pay attention.

It’s too easy to get caught up in superlatives. And making a bicycle, a handcrafted, one-at-a-time bicycle for a patiently waiting client, invites a wider conversation about how well these are made. About how much faster you’ll go. And how comfortable you’ll be. Folks wax endlessly about exacting tolerances, and how a maker bleeds for his art – the type of waxing that also leads to using words like the best, or I didn’t believe until I saw one in the flesh. Etcetera. Where are the facts? Who is measuring what? What do these people really know?!

I can’t imagine making a bicycle for anyone else except me. By the time a few days pass and another frame is almost done, I’ve cursed it, admired it, compared it to the previous one, and wondered why each one becomes exactly what it wants to be rather than what I wanted it to be. I don’t recall ever constructing a bicycle frame, and thinking my entire life’s legacy wouldn’t be judged by it, and then wondering what all the fuss was about a week later. It’s a balancing act. A collaboration. An¬†acquiescence. It’s an act of concession. The finished piece always wins, and my place in all of this is to be comfortable with what the several days of labor has delivered to me. For the first thirty years I was confounded. For the last ten I have been a willing partner to it all.

Despite all this, folks still line up and wait for what I do. And I am not alone; I’m actually in good company, and there are many people whose brands attract a similar devotion. But do those writing the checks really know what they are getting? Do they have special needs that can only be satisfied when one of us finishes a commission for them? I am glad they all want what they want because it allows me another chance to pull an order, pay attention, and spend several days listening to the material.

You really have to make the bicycle (or the watercolor, or the cue stick, the Pinot, the movie, the violin, or – dare I add, the opinion) for yourself and nobody else. Once it’s finished and on the road, it’s just another commodity with a label. If folks talk about it or add it to a Best Of list, it’s not about you, it’s about them. If you read about it, or if they tell you, be thankful, smile graciously, and then go back to work.