The right light of experience

Kyle Smith

Over the years we tackle increasingly complex projects and tasks. That escalation builds a catalog of understanding about how things work and what the best practices are—or aren’t. In short: Experience.

If you look at those you admire, this is often the common thread. In the car world, it means those with the touch and feel to know the perfect time to switch their grip on the ratchet to remove a bolt faster. Those who can seemingly do double the work in half the time.

Gary Swan is one such guy. He’s a veteran of the motorcycle road-racing paddock and decided in 2022 to offer spark-plug reading and tuning tips during Barber Vintage Festival. A small group gathered to try and glean something from his decades of interpreting electrodes and deposits on porcelain.

Watching him read a plug was humbling. His eye picked out so many faint points of information nearly instantly. He spent most of the afternoon holding plugs and spinning in circles: Modern LED flashlights, he said, “just don’t work as good as the sun coming over your shoulder.”

A glance at arm’s length for the timing line, then a look through a jeweler’s glass for the temp reading. “You’re on the edge with that tune-up, I’d back down if I were you.”

Gary can tell what kind of bike you’re racing just by the used plug you hand him. His catalog of experience took decades to accumulate, and he didn’t build it by repeated action alone. It took focused effort.

Watching Gary reinforced what I had learned earlier this year while doing my second motorcycle paint job. I might only be a few pages into my catalog at this point, but I know that every job in the garage can become another line on the page—if I invest care and attention in the work.

XR100 frame in paint booth
Kyle Smith

The first paint job was one of good intention and okay results. I vowed I would learn from my own mistakes. Those lessons could become experience when put into practice. That’s why, when I decided to do a restomod of my Honda XR100R pit bike so it would match the XR250Rs I race, I spent a whole day on setup. The garage door rails served as a hanging point for thin plastic sheeting, and a furnace filter on a box fan created negative pressure to keep all the overspray contained. I also added some spotlights pointed up from the floor to highlight areas I would likely miss because of shadows.

The finished product was better for my efforts—or so I thought before I noticing the dust in the color coat. Should have washed the floor and sprayed it with water to keep the dust down.

It often takes years, decades even, to gather knowledge. To write your own catalog. The key thing is to be mindful. It’s impossible to build your experience if you aren’t present and thinking about what it is you are doing. People will often talk about the time aspect of building experience, but that is only part of the story.

Doing things lazily or having no pride in your work will rarely turn you into an expert. More accurately, it will turn you into an expert on being lazy and cutting corners. Practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent. Experience is valuable. Don’t waste the opportunity to gather it.

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    I happen to agree with the overall premise of the article, but let’s not ignore the other side: if EVERYONE took it upon themselves to get experienced, there would be little need for tradesmen (people who get paid to do things). 😁

    Wouldn’t that come down to specialties? We can’t all know everything all the time. I know a lot about building an engine, but something like furnace repair is left to someone with more experience when something fails in my home. The whole thing about “jack of all trades” only works to an extent when you want perfection in the final product–(and I consider myself a jack of all trades)

    Point made and taken. But we don’t all need furnace repair. And if we have enough friends who’ve got “experience” in enough areas, we might just make it through life without having to hire anyone for anything. Although, now that I’ve written that, it occurs to me that I’m describing “extensive experience” at making the right friends, eh?
    Hey, all kind of academic anyway, and my scenario is admittedly far-fetched. And remember, I started out by stating that I agree, Kyle. Just trying to keep differing perspectives in the discussion!

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