A respectful response to comments on “Follow up or forget it” – Lost Art Press

If there’s one thing I can say about readers of the Lost Art Press blog it’s that you’re a thoughtful lot. Thank you for your comments on my last post. In an effort to stanch* the misunderstanding, I decided it would be better to reply this way instead of writing detailed responses to individual comments.

As I reflected on the first remarks I saw (during a bathroom break) this afternoon, I realized that I should ask the following question:

Would you have responded differently to the post if I told you it was not based on a single individual but a distillation of many email exchanges, phone calls, meetings in person etc. — in other words, to make a general point? Here is how the post was intended:

1. as insight into the reality experienced by many of us who make our living as makers of furniture, cabinetry, and similar wares while also teaching classes and writing about our work

2. as a bit of advice to those hoping to get started in the field.

The point of the piece was certainly not to air dirty laundry or blast anyone in public. To the writer of that comment: I appreciate your concern that the general tone here remain constructive. The point of my post was constructive. Please do me the favor of reading on.

Another comment writer suggested that maybe the young man in question was just too busy to respond promptly. I appreciate — very much — your interest in seeing the other person’s side. A few people have written me off over the years because they grew tired of my own insistence on doing the same. In this particular case, the person who contacted me was a recent college graduate (in Making Things Work, I altered all identifying information, places and dates included) looking for direction in summer. He did not yet have a job.

But since we’re on the topic of being busy, I am running a one-person business on which a significant portion of my family’s livelihood depends. Punctual responses may be about manners for some people (they are to me, as well), but the need for punctuality has a grittier source in my world. If I don’t respond punctually to an email such as the one I quoted in that last post, or a voicemail/whatever, it will almost certainly fall off my radar due to the pile of other crap, literal and figurative, I am juggling. My patience with a lack of reciprocity from someone who is requesting my help is limited.

The following and more are currently on that radar screen: Building a set of kitchen cabinets with a mid-June deadline. Designing a sideboard for a house that defies any architectural characterization beyond “eclectic.” Coming up with an estimate for a dining table like nothing you or I have ever seen – an estimate that requires input from specialist suppliers, not just from me. (Can you say “herding cats”?) Proofing PDFs of several forthcoming magazine articles. Planning a trip to a few northeastern states during a limited window of available time in late July/early August to promote my book on English Arts and Crafts furniture. (Note: promotion is not about ego. It’s about developing real relationships and doing my part for the publisher.) Plans for a long weekend visit to my parents and sister in mid-July. Working out contractual and logistical details for a work-related video this summer. Collecting, shooting, and organizing images for (in addition to writing) a book about kitchens for Lost Art Press. Working with design clients in various states (and in various states of progress on their respective jobs). Writing a weekly blog post for Popular Woodworking and a series of posts for the Pros’ Corner at Fine Woodworking. (Interviews with Michael Fortune and Darrell Peart are coming up.) Writing class descriptions, communicating with past and prospective students, etc. In other words, the stuff of everyday life in my line of work.

There’s also the day to day reality of home life – a life I’m blessed to have.

And weeding the garden.

Responding to a missive such as the one in my previous post is not a matter of simply typing letters on a keyboard. It involves thinking strategically about what I might realistically be able to do for the person who is making the request. I don’t take that lightly. As I wrote in that post, I made a very generous offer to this person in the past; his response indicated that he was less seriously interested in learning about this line of work than he thought himself to be. Second time around? Barring catalepsy or some equivalent scenario, the lack of a prompt reply to my message (which I sent via the same medium as the one through which I received it; I recognize that some people no longer check email regularly) indicates that the claimed interest may be more dilettantish than the inquirer may be aware. “Jacob” is not alone in this. (Heck, I probably did the same thing myself at some point in my teens, though this person is beyond that age.) There was also Caitlin (not her real name), who insisted she was dead-serious about being my apprentice and lasted…one full day. (“My boyfriend is going to be in town tomorrow on the spur of the moment so I won’t be able to work. I knew you’d understand!” Huh?) Or Ike (ditto; not his real name), who contacted me during his last semester in college and came highly recommended by his adviser, whom I respect enormously. I rearranged my schedule around Ike’s impending arrival, taking on one job in particular that I could only handle with another pair of hands. Minor problem: He didn’t show up. “Oh, sorry. I guess I should have told you I had a better offer.” Fortunately I was able to hire an experienced tradesperson to take Ike’s place, though doing so cost me a couple hundred dollars. These are just two of the numerous other characters behind today’s noon-hour post.

In other words, that post was about the cumulative effect that such less-than-fully-considered queries tend to have on a businessperson’s willingness to entertain future requests from others. (Note: I am talking about a micro-enterprise businessperson, not a person with “staff.”) Every individual who does not follow through makes it less likely that the next one’s going to be taken seriously. Because lack of time.

Finally, the real-life young man mentioned in my last post is a wonderful, intelligent person with a huge heart and many admirable talents. He has so much going for him and has benefited from some good connections. When I write an email message such as the one I quoted in that post, it’s intended not as negative, unprofessional, or mean-spirited, but precisely the opposite: a piece of educational truth-sharing about one of the rarely-discussed (because AWKWARD) aspects of what it really means to make one’s living as a woodworker in today’s world. And that is exactly why I wrote Making Things Work.

*It’s correct. Look it up.

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