How Much is Your Burl Worth? – Seeing the value in your mistakes

Upcoming in this blog posting: an extended metaphor, burl poaching, and some beautiful and very expensive bowls. But before we get to the good stuff, we have to talk about mistakes. Which is something no one really wants to do.

In fact, sometimes the hardest thing about mistakes is admitting that you have made one. Say you realize that you’ve somehow, accidentally bungled a client relationship. Maybe it was a complete accident, or a misunderstanding. Maybe you were having a bad day – something personal going on that made you lose focus just enough, just for a few minutes, to make that one mistake. Maybe it was something a lot bigger than just a single client relationship that was damaged. We all know that sickening feeling, as it dawns on you what you’ve done, and as you scramble to calculate the damage, and how it can be mitigated or fixed.

The thing is, the mistakes themselves, however serious they may seem or be at the moment, are rarely the be-all, end-all of the situation. How you handle the mistake is more often what defines how much it will matter in the long run. A mistake can be made worse both by treating it like it is much bigger than it actually is, and by treating it like it is really nothing.

Sometimes the most tempting course of action can be to just ignore the mistake. To act like it doesn’t exist. After all, our first and most basic reaction to fear is to close our eyes or cover our face – from the time we are kids we practice the mentality that if we can’t see it, it can’t hurt us. Hey, you made that error on that big policy you submitted the other day, and you know your client will be upset – well, knowing the particular client, livid might be a better term – if you tell them about it. You wonder if they will notice on their own. If you don’t say anything, maybe it will take them a few months to pick up on it. And then maybe the blame won’t be directed so inexorably at you. Or maybe time will act as a buffer.

But time is a poor buffer, and it has never made a problem go away. For example, anyone who has been in a bad relationship knows that big issues between two people do not magically disappear the longer one or both of you continue to pretend they do not exist or hope they will go away. Hope is a mindset and an attitude. Not a salve that can be applied to mitigate consequences and bind up what’s broken. Sometimes just admitting “hey, this isn’t working,” is the hardest, the biggest hurdle to finding an eventual solution.

Sometimes taking the step to fixing especially longer-standing mistakes can feel like starting new and unfamiliar habits. It feels like you need an occasion to do it. Something important and significant to bump you up over the edge – over that hesitation and doubt. But, just as you don’t need a New Year to make a resolution to change, neither do you need a big jolt or a metaphorical slap in the face to take the steps to fix something that needs fixing. You have the power to define how things will affect you and your business or work environment – but only you can exercise that power.

Maybe you can’t get the client back. They got upset enough that they refused to listen to an apology – to meet even halfway in your efforts to make things right. But again, another person’s reaction does not have to be your reaction. And however big and ugly something gets, you still get to choose what to do with it. If you are going to use it to recalibrate the way you approach client relationships. Or policy submission guidelines. Or oversight in the office. Maybe the “choice” is just to make sure that you put the correct processes in place so that a mistake of that nature doesn’t happen again. And maybe that doesn’t seem like much of a choice.

Here’s something to think about. Maybe your mistake looks like this.

A burl or knot in a tree trunk is formed around a place where the tree’s tissue was stressed or damaged – by virus, infection, fungus, insects, etc… It would be easy, just looking at the surface, to see a knot like the one above and say, “look at that terrible mistake in that beautiful tree. That wood is just ruined.” But the tree’s outward aesthetic here is unimportant. These very burls that make a trunk gnarled, misshapen, and harder to cut, are what also make the wood valuable and unique. Burls are highly sought after for art, carvings, furniture, and more. In fact, especially large burls have such potential value they are in some places subject to illegal harvesting. A large tree might be able to offer hundreds of identical 2 x 4s, but only one burl, and a skilled craftsman can take the massive burl out of an old oak tree and turn it into something exquisite and one-of-a-kind.


So, look at these beautiful works of art, created from the old wound where a tree experienced an interruption in it’s smooth growth pattern. Now, these knotted, twisted pieces of scar tissue are the most valuable and sought after part of that particular tree. The transformation doesn’t happen overnight or without effort. Burl wood is hard and sometimes fragile and notoriously difficult to carve. A burl doesn’t fall off a tree magically transformed into a lustrous bowl that will sell on Etsy for over a thousand dollars. It’s value is all in how it is used. So choose to take your mistakes – however minor or serious they might seem – assess them honestly, and don’t let yourself be overwhelmed by how gnarly they may appear on the outside. And then use them to create something new.

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