Moments before sawing up one of my bookshelves for the sake of a magic trick, I paused to consider whether I’d actually gone insane.
It was a perfectly good shelf. It still had books on it. It would eventually need replacing at non-trivial cost if I went ahead with this whole “sawing it up” plan.
I was about to saw up the shelf because I needed a piece of wood. I needed a piece of wood because I was trying to make a stand to hold a playing card while I sculpted it into something impossible-looking. I needed this sculpting stand for a routine I was developing. I was developing the routine because I needed something with which to represent Australia at the upcoming World Magic Championships, and was otherwise completely out of ideas.
So I needed a piece of wood.
Normally I would have gone to a hardware shop to buy it. However, at this point it was 11pm on a Friday night and my flight to LA (to do a heap of shows and actually rehearse the damn routine) was leaving the next morning. No hardware shops open at that time in Melbourne.
Maybe I could have used something other than a piece of wood. But I’d already gone through four different prototypes that didn’t work for various reasons. The wood-based design was the only idea I had left.
Maybe I should have tackled this problem earlier. That would have been a truly excellent idea. It didn’t happen though. The past two weeks had been taken up with producing a bunch of shows. The weeks before that had been spent on the aforementioned non-working prototypes, and only through the failure of those had I ended up with the wood idea. You can’t control when ideas hit you, and sometimes they hit you when it’s late at night, the shops are shut, and your flight is leaving the next morning.
So I sawed up my shelf.
The resulting prototype card-sculpting stand was ugly but looked workable. At this point it was heading towards 4am and I was a wreck. I packed the prototype, flew to LA, and proceeded to try it out over the course of a week performing at the world famous magic castle.
The prototype sucked.
For various reasons too complicated to go into here, it just didn’t do its job well enough for a routine that was supposed to be representing cutting-edge Australian magic at the biggest competition on the planet. As you might imagine, it was a very angsty week.
However, over the course of that week struggling with my wooden shelf-sacrificing prototype, I came up with something else. Many friends and colleagues watched me suffer through that week. Several of them, knowing the problems I was having, suggested other ideas. From a few of those ideas, I managed to make a completely different prototype design. This one did the job so stunningly well that it literally took my breath away when I first saw it in action.
The wooden prototype ended up in a trash can in a friend’s apartment building in Los Angeles. I would have salvaged it for parts, but my suitcase was overweight and I needed to get back to Australia for final rehearsals. When I got back home and saw my still-mostly-wrecked shelf, I reflected on the fact that I had trashed it in order to build something that didn’t even end up working.
And that is completely, totally ok.
The nature of research and development is that not every idea is going to work out. You have no way of knowing in advance which ideas will eventually become useful and which will end up in a trash can in Los Angeles. Until you actually build a prototype and try it out, there’s no way to know.
So you keep trying, usually failing, but occasionally succeeding. Sometimes spectacularly. And if that requires destroying the furniture occasionally, then so be it.
(Thumbnail photo via Flickr user goosmurf, licenced under Creative Commons CC-BY-2.0)