You have to pursue a discipline of one form or another to be happy in your life, says Nick Offerman as he explains his life’s philosophy and why he loves woodworking. Just don’t chase after perfection and learn to love mistakes. He also shares how his life experiences shaped him, how he grew up, and his passion for making ukuleles.
Nick Offerman: Well I often espouse a general philosophy in my life of pursuing a discipline of one sort or another. But it’s not to ever approach any level of perfection. You start, you go in knowing that as human beings we never can achieve perfection, and so I feel like mastery of any skill or art form really more involves becoming much better at covering your mistakes. But no matter how much of a virtuoso a person becomes I feel like if they’re still in the mentality of a student pursuing their discipline then they’ll never finish ripping out a Beethoven symphony or playing a game of basketball and say, “There, I’ve done it. That was the perfect rendition.” Instead what keeps us living and what keeps me vitally engaged is a constant pursuit of betterment. So I gave up on perfect a long time ago, and now I’m just chasing halfway decent.
Part of this philosophy I’m talking about came to me naturally. I grew up in a family out in the country in Illinois. Both my mom and dad grew up on farms. I grew up working on my mom’s family’s farms. And so we were very frugal. It was very Little House on the Prairie in the 70s and 80s which means we had a television but we were still raising as much garden as we could and everything – we got this free farmhouse in exchange – my dad had to build some cabinets for this farmer and we hired a guy to roll this house six miles and then we spent our lives there improving it. We painted it every couple of years; we built a little barn.
And so I don’t know, just by naturally learning to enrich in my own life through my parent’s activities—I complained about it a lot. I wasn’t a 12 year old saying, “Hey dad, is there something I can dig up for you this weekend?” I was griping like any kid! I wanted to stay in and watch cartoons, and so we would work out a deal.
And the thing that I see as a major difference between my childhood and a lot of society today is that we’ve become so good at comforting ourselves. Consumer luxury has become sort of a given. In most walks of life in this country you can choose to live a life of ease where you never have to really try very hard. You can cruise through school as long as you get passing grades. You can get some job with which you can cover your living expenses and that allows you to just watch TV, play video games, to amuse yourself, to engage in leisure all of the time you’re not earning your living. And to a certain frame of mind that might sound attractive. But I’ve kind of tried it at times. A lot of marijuana was also involved in my particular formula, and I quickly learned that it’s depressing.
I don’t know, for me I quickly thought, “What are you doing with your life? Are you just going to watch cool movies… and then die?” Again to a certain part of the id I think that sounds like a great idea. “Let’s just hang out and watch The Big Lebowski over and over.” But for me thankfully because of my chemistry I came to understand that even if I wasn’t succeeding, even if I was making woodworking projects in an alley in Los Angeles 25 years ago, I was improving.
And they were crappy, and I would make mistakes. But I pretty soon came to learn that those mistakes were some of the most valuable time I ever spent. Because if you want to become great at something whether you want to make a living at it or—there are other ways to make a happy living than earning money. There are a lot of people who don’t like their jobs but who go home and knit or they go home and take care of kids, or they cook or they do any number of things with their hands. They engage this magic tool set called the human body, and there’s so much that it can achieve that is satisfying that may never pay you a dollar, but it makes your life incredibly happy. And that’s the lesson I would try to pass along.
Neil Gaiman says something really profound about mistakes that—it’s a New Year’s benediction that he gave, and to paraphrase, he says, “I hope that in the coming year you have blessings and health and all that, but I really hope that you make mistakes. Because if you make mistakes it means you’re out there trying. It means you’re taking a swing at achieving something. And if you’re not making mistakes it means you’ve given up, and you’re becoming one of those fat baby people floating around on the chairs in the movie WALL-E, eating everything as some kind of weird milkshake.”
I don’t know. For me I love making things out of wood. I’m making nine ukuleles right now in my shop in Los Angeles and they’re going to be just fine. They’re going to sound like ukuleles, but I don’t know if I’ll ever make one that a great musician would pick up and say “Wow, how did you make it sound so amazing!” I know that and that’s okay, because there’s a lot of other people who can pick up my ukuleles and it’ll just keep them out of Clapton’s hands. If he comes around I’ll be like “Yeah, I don’t know. I think we got these at a garage sale.” But they’re beautiful and they’re full of mistakes. I could show you ten mistakes in every instrument and I’m not even done yet. But it doesn’t matter. When it all goes together and people look at it, they see your creation. They’re not going to say well, you’ve got three things wrong. They’re going to say, “Holy cow. This sounds like a ukulele. I can play several Mills Brothers songs on this thing!”
And so, I don’t know, at the end of all that, for me as a human animal I’ve stayed out of the pub, I haven’t hurt anybody, I haven’t purchased anything that a corporation made—and perhaps that corporation is not being as mindful of our natural resources as we would prefer. So I’ve not added to any landfills by purchasing a crappy version of the thing I made that will break and get thrown away. And so it’s a general pursuit of trying to add things to the world and trying to help rather than hurt.