Cutting Tool Engineering
March 2010 / Volume 62 / Issue 3

Developing a personal learning attitude

By Tom Lipton

Courtesy of T. Lipton

The “meathook” hands of a metalworking professional.

Your attitude is one of the key ingredients to success in any field, not just metalworking. Without a positive and persistent attitude, you might as well just go sit in front of the TV. The power of learning and dogged persistence cannot be overstated. Winners do what losers are unwilling to do.

We are in the middle of a unique time in history. The ability to share new ideas, information and old skills will never be better. This critical time balances between the new guard and the old. On one side, we have access to technology for sharing huge amounts of detailed information across thousands of miles and time zones in the blink of an eye. On the other side, we still have access to the people and knowledge whose shoulders we are standing on and who form the foundations of our trades.

The trades have been very good to me. Part of the responsibility a trade imposes is to pass on knowledge and skills to those willing to learn. We have all stood on the shoulders of the people we have learned from; we owe at least the payment of passing the skills on. Moreover, each successive generation should push the boundaries of their art to the next higher level.

Your attitude toward learning and your skills are your protection in modern times. No longer can you rely on having a good job for life, working for a stable company. Entire industries are being created or becoming obsolete on a daily basis. Modern skilled tradesmen have to constantly adapt and add skills to their toolkit to keep up with the pace of industry and the modern global electronic economy. Learn everything you can about everything, and learn something new every day.

The advancement of any craft depends on new experiences and new people with sometimes wild and exaggerated ideas who push the boundaries of current knowledge and accepted practice. This is one of the character traits that built America. For this reason, as new ideas, techniques and materials become available, it is important to postpone or suspend judgment about them. Look at how they might be applied instead of dismissing them. An open environment where every person and every new idea has worth—without concern for criticism or dismissal—is key to success.

Every company is built on people. Machines and materials are commodities that can bought, sold and traded any day of the week. Great people are grown, cultivated, protected and nurtured. In exchange for this, they give back loyalty, dedication, innovation and hard work. It’s called a trade for a reason. Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. I enjoy leisure time as much as the next person, but I also love my work and would be doing the same thing even if somebody didn’t conveniently pay me to do it.

You can get an understanding of metalworking’s technical issues and the tools involved from reading, but true skill comes from hands-on practice. Anybody can learn some metalworking trivia and talk a good technical line. Just like a good salesman, they can sell themselves a shiny new car. But there is nowhere to hide in the shop when the rubber hits the road. You either go up in smoke or gain traction. An imposter stands out like a cow-pie at a croquet match to someone skilled in the trade.

An interesting example of this comes from a story a friend told me about passing through international customs one time. The customs inspector asked him what kind of work he did, to which he replied he was a machinist. Next, the customs inspector said, “Let me see your hands.”

Skills are like calluses; the faster you try to go, the easier it is to get a blister. The slow, steady approach builds skills and calluses for a lifetime of learning and rewards. If you think you can read a book or take a pill and miraculously emerge a seasoned veteran, you are mistaken. It takes years to hardwire the necessary muscle memory to perform some metalworking operations, but once you have it, it is obvious to others in the trade. CTE

About the Author: Tom Lipton is a career metalworker who has worked at various job shops that produce parts for the consumer product development, laboratory equipment, medical services and custom machinery design industries. He has received six U.S. patents and lives in Alamo, Calif. Lipton’s column is adapted from information in his book “Metalworking Sink or Swim: Tips and Tricks for Machinists, Welders, and Fabricators,” published by Industrial Press Inc., New York. The publisher can be reached by calling (888) 528-7852 or visiting By indicating the code CTE-2010 when ordering, CTE readers will receive a 20 percent discount off the book’s list price of $44.95.

CUTTING TOOL ENGINEERING Magazine is protected under U.S. and international copyright laws.Before reproducing anything from this Web site, call the Copyright Clearance Center Inc.
at (978) 750-8400.