The 7 lessons I learnt about making and happiness

This is my makerstory. It tells the valuable lessons I learnt about making and how it makes me happy and productive.

  1. You can always make (something)
  2. It is comforting to be together and on your own at the same time
  3. Having a maker space feels safe
  4. Making is a healing power
  5. A big toolbox creates big ideas
  6. Making is the route to creativity
  7. Making is balance

Chapter 1: Childhood bliss

I was brought up in the Dutch countryside. This was very deliberate: my parents moved from the busy West of the country to the quiet North. They wanted us to have the space and opportunity to become free-range kids.

My mum didn’t have much respect for laziness, so when bored or out of ideas she gave us three options:

  • Go outside! The free-range kids master plan showed itself here: we were trusted with knives, fire and very high trees. (And bruised all the time.)
  • Read! My mum was a volunteer in the local library and is a great reader herself: ‘Reading allows you to go wherever you want.’ Reading generates ideas.
  • Make! My parents are ace makers. They dived head-first into the country life: making jam, twining and colouring wool, chopping wood, making (disgusting) wine, sewing clothes, fixing and building things around the house. They happily explained HOW to make, but never told us WHAT.

They transferred this maker attitude to us. I learnt loads about tools and materials, I had a rich maker-palet to choose from.

The goal was always to just be doing something. There was no creative pressure; it was only about time being spent. Cutting loads of pointy sticks with a knife was a perfect afternoon. That taught me my first lesson.

Lesson 1: you can always make (something). When you start fiddling around with materials and tools without the pressure of an end result, ideas will appear. Being bored actually helps! (These pointy sticks became beautiful arrows over time.)

Often these afternoons would be spent together. My mum was never the one to step down to our children’s’ level; she never joined the big Playmobil set-ups. But she was around. We would be sitting at our kitchen table, each doing our own. Happy days!

Lesson 2: it is comforting to be together and on your own at the same time. Maker sessions are often lengthy. Working on my own ideas, with my mum around doing her own things made me happy and helped me focus.

Chapter 2: darkness

At 17 my seven years of sadness started. I felt lost and alone and could not see beyond the night that was before me.

Not many things were sure back then, but I remembered the important lesson I learned as a child: I could always make. And I did, every single day. I had this big cardboard box with material that I carried with me.

And that is lesson 3: having a maker space feels safe. Wherever I was, I was both with and in my maker space.

Thinking back, I feel this relates to the great things Johan Huizinga wrote on play: ‘In an imperfect world and in our confusing lives, playing achieves a temporary and limited perfection.’ That was exactly what it was; temporary and (very) limited perfection.

I still always carry my little maker space with me. It’s content changes over time, but in some form it is always there.

Even now, when I attend some fancy-dress-high-heals-clutch event I carry a pencil. The most minimalistic maker space I can imagine. It makes me feel safe.

While I was making to hold on, I slowly noticed that making could be more than just that, it can be a power for good.

I learnt lesson 4: making is a healing power. While making I could loose myself in the moment. And for small periods of time I felt happy and care-free. Making chased my darkness away, if only for a little while.

Chapter 3: hard work

By then it was clear I was a maker. I said no to university and went to art school instead. There, I hugely expanded my toolbox. I learnt welding, working with clay, I was often in the wood workshop, worked with plaster and concrete, painted and worked happily on the big printing presses. I felt like a child again!

I could feel my creative potential develop because of all the new tools I practiced with. The great artist Grayson Perry describes this experience really well in his book Playing to the gallery: every time you learn a new technique, there are more creative possibilities to think about. It’s like learning new language to think in.

And that’s lesson 5: a big toolbox creates big ideas. Every new technique might be the door to a whole new universe!

I worked extremely hard and experienced that hard work creates mental space. I especially remember the color-analysis lessons we had to do. We were given a lot of little cards (1000?) and had to hand paint them all, changing the color from card to card by adding one drop of paint between cards.

The many nights it took to complete this were very productive. Card-wise but also creatively.

In those nights I learnt lesson 6: making is my route to creativity. Being busy allowed my mind to wander free. New ideas came to me like waves hitting a beach.

And still: every blog I write, every keynote I prepare, every chapter I make for my books: they all appear in my head while drawing, sketching, scribbling notes… Getting busy with it is allows the ideas to take shape in my head. (This blog took two weeks of sketching!) The wandering free will automatically be related to the task. I wrote about te balance between thinking and making before: the one needs the other.

Chapter 4: good work

Being a proper adult (mortgage and all) I can use these lessons to my advantage over and over again. Making is a natural and relaxed part of my life and work. I am grateful I learnt the lessons, I am even grateful for the seven years of sadness. I am sure it got me to where I am today. It is (still) a part of who I am.

From my lessons (and those of others!) I distilled two approaches to making, each with their own goals and benefits. I choose the approaches deliberately, but they can also switch while making without me noticing. Those are those precious ultimate flow moments.

focused on process

The first approach is the quiet, introvert one. Painting the 1000 cards, but also things like knitting or repetitive soldering. A continuous and nice activity that requires not much head space and allows your mind to wander. Nice to quiet down. This making is about the process.

Gever Tully has nice things to say about this: when he sees his tinkering school student decorate their complex maker-products, he feels they are taking a break. They are recovering from the hard thinking they do all day. And that’s how the process one usually appears: it starts, because the maker needs it. 

Sometimes the process one can be stand alone, like meditation. Right now I like to do close-drawing: drawing an everyday object that is right in front of me over and over again.

focused on The product

The second approach is on the outside: new ideas that grow by discussion and showing the world. Ideas need feedback and collaboration and grow by working hard and dedicated. This making is focused on the product.

These are the books, posters, and kits I make: very social, very intense, very high speed, very hard work and very often struggle. It is exciting and uplifting, I love it!

Combining the two is the final lesson. Lesson 7: making is balance. I like to think of making in my life as these two (conflicting?) forces. Stuck in the middle, I am in perfect balance.

Making keeps me sane: it is my anchor. It keeps the darkness away and helps me to calm down. And making gives me wings: it is my entrance to creativity and my ultimate positive changing power.

There! 7 lessons! I love them! Now you take them! Use them! Spit on them! WHOAAH!