Main Takeaway: Adaptability can only come from expertise, and expertise is developed only through experience. Quite often, that’s failure and even the expectation of failure (gamedays, chaos engineering experiments, architecture reviews, etc.). Also, lightsabers are cool.
I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to write about lightsabers. During my lunch breaks I’ve been diving into some Tested.com videos, in particular a lightsaber build by Adam Savage. Watching a master craftsman practice their trade with giddy excitement (and, ya know, make swooshing sounds) is entertaining. You can tell he enjoys the science of it, the creativity, even when things go wrong. In another life I think I could’ve been a halfway decent maker myself.
I’m burying the lede, though. Creativity and Adaptability go hand in hand because we don’t fully know what we’re building until…we’ve built it. For any sufficiently complex system (don’t mind me adding some normative language as a stopgap for nitpicking), plans will almost certainly be incomplete. As the saying goes, “the map is not the territory” applies to build steps and design plans.
Apart from the actual build (the finished lightsaber), the building itself was entertaining. You can see the gears moving in his head, sorting through what works and what doesn’t as initial plans evolve throughout the process.
Some mild spoilers ahead if you’re planning on watching the video, but he does have some mistakes along the way. I’m also not a master maker, so I’m far out of my depth in many of the things he does, but even outside my discipline you can see the very subtle cues and clues that speak to his work through the process.
There are some choice quotes from Mr. Savage in the video I’ve pulled worth highlighting (and some bolding for noteworthy quotes):
- “I’m actually, I think, going to try some single point threading in this”. A sentence that implies both deep knowledge of a skill and a lack of full confidence – experience that this work requires deep skill that he might not possess fully.
- “I’m spooked by this…it’s not going to be the lightsaber of your dreams, but the prototype”. Awareness that the finished project isn’t guaranteed even with so much experience.
- “I know I should use the threads, but…I’m not going to.” Experts are, often times, rule breakers. They take shortcuts, or know less tread paths. Sometimes subverting the system is detrimental, of course, but it’s also how the system can work through unknowns or unexpected work.
- “I’m proceeding on this piece one step at a time…when I’m doing something aesthetic like this, I have a plan, but I also even at any given point in that plan, I don’t know how much of that plan I’m implementing, so I’m always implementing the next most obvious thing.”, a recognition that the plan can go sideways at any point
- One part I disagree with him on is he says he “wasted time” with a mistake…but is it? Did he learn something, “discovered the territory” as he attempted and learned from trials?
- He also says he was “rushing” with parts. Maybe? That feels like a construction after the fact, though. We take tons of shortcuts and back alleys because we’re experienced. We only note the “rushing” when it doesn’t work out in our favor.
- “This is the point in the build that I’m sure it’s all going to $%!#…OH, also, i have a new interesting problem!” Surprises aren’t always entirely surprising. You know it’ll going wrong in certain places. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with this thing..huh”.
- “You know what, I screwed up…I got impatient. Let’s see what I can salvage from all of this madness…”. There’s an imperfection, but that adaptation comes from what exists and developing it into what could be. Except when “There’s no rescue of this part..”, which indicates a dead end and a potential backtrack into previous work, in which he now has invaluable experience (failures can produce knowledge, which makes them valuable).
- At one point in particular, he holds it, looks for a good 20 seconds, grimaces. Any general maker would be overjoyed with that work, but he goes ahead and remakes it. With a number of painful quotes we’ve all likely said:
- “Going to suck up another 90 minutes but…I can work this weekend.”
- “The screw up happened because I was impatient….’Maybe I can make it work with the 2”!
- “I liked the proportions of my drawing, I should’ve stuck to it from the beginning…I thought I was making it a little easier, I wasn’t. BUT I got to try some things out and see how well they worked and now have a bit of a better aesthetic idea and mechanical on how I want this piece to be.
- “Hopefully this will just be an ordinary set back” – tacit knowledge that every projects has set backs which can’t be planned for but can be adapted to.
- A string of expletives screwing up the single point threader on the remake. “I didn’t know it was engaged!”. Even a master craftsman…makes basic mistakes!
- Deeper into the video, he says “I have much more of a point of view on the lighstaber” after working (AND sleeping/going away for a day to rest). Insights happen outside the making process and throughout the process.
- “You gotta be careful of this stuff (aluminum shavings). It looks like tinfoil but it’ll give you the worst paper cut!”. That’s like hanging a big sign that says “I’ve shredded my hands on that before”.
- “The only way I know what shape the emitter has to be is to try out the one I finished” even if it might require him to remake it.
- “I found an old school lightsaber button which I’m going to put here…I have to figure out how to get it in. Nontrivial. But I will!”. This is completely outside the original plan, but mapping of the unknown is what we do all the time.
- “I’m going to put a little (*whistle sound*), a little lip on it”. There’s a tendency for those proficient with a craft to have unexplainable tweaks, shims, additions, subtractions, etc. that they can’t quite explain with words immediately.
- He builds the handle of the lightsaber longer than his design indicated, because, as he says, “you can’t make it longer but you can make it shorter.”. He bakes in adaptability before hand because he’s giving himself space to fail.
- “Yeah, I know. I’m beating everything up.” There’s expertise in getting closer to the boundary of safety. Experts have trade offs with success, some of which is closing in on the envelope between what is assumed to be safe and unsafe.
- One thing I find particularly notable is that Mr. Savage doesn’t often wear safety goggles, at times isn’t wearing gloves, has dog walking around the shop. This is not a criticism, but an acknowledgement of “Well this is safe” until it…isn’t.
- “The Savage lightsaber. It’s real, it’s done!…(next day). Can’t stop mucking with this thing, because I’m very happy with it.” When is it done? Almost never.
- There’s a casualness he has (or appears to have) with parts that took hours to put together, were custom in many places, and would be tragic to damage. I don’t believe this is the confidence of someone who believes they won’t mess it up, but that if they do they can fix it or adapt.
- And what might be the biggest safety violation – near the end of the video, looks down the lightsaber as he turns it on. Master Yoda would be displeased.