When?
Entrepreneur|March 2020
When do you launch? / When do you act? / When do you change? It just might be the most important question an entrepreneur ever answers.
By Jim McKelvey / Cofounder of Square

I AM AN ENTREPRENEUR, but I am also a glassblower— AND EVERY GLASSBLOWER HAS A MENTOR.

In fact, we all have the same one: Lino Tagliapietra. Glassblowing is the only profession I know where everyone agrees on who the best practitioner is. Nobody knows who the best accountant or mortician or loan shark is, but the world’s best glassblower is Lino.

Everyone learns from the Maestro, usually by meeting someone who has met someone who has taken one of Lino’s classes. Maestro’s classes are legendary, right down to an admission process that would impress the Harvard registrar. There was even an essay question, and a collection of T-shirts for sale to salve the pain of rejection. It took me 15 years to earn a place, but I was finally admitted.

Lino’s class lasted two weeks, and during that time, each student was allowed to ask Maestro one question. Everyone obsessed over his or her question, and as a result, most questions followed the same format: A student would ask Lino how to do something impossible with glass. We would then sit in rapture as Maestro demonstrated how to do it. But when the day came for my question, none of the other students even paid attention to Lino’s answer, for my question was so basic that they already knew it. Or so they thought.

I asked the best glassblower in the world how to put a simple foot on a bowl.

You’ve seen this before. Imagine any kind of glass bowl, and now imagine it resting perfectly atop a small glass base. That’s the foot—it keeps the bowl upright. Putting a foot on a bowl is not complicated; the basic technique is taught in every beginner class. By this point in my career, I had performed the process at least a thousand times, but I could never get comfortable with the move. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. I had studied different techniques, purchased different tools, but nothing worked consistently. Sometimes the foot would proudly elevate the bowl on top; other times it looked like it had frozen while trying to escape. Every time I needed to apply a foot, I got anxious. So, after 15 years of stress and failure, I used my one question to ask the Maestro how to do this right.

I expected him to answer me as he had the other students, by demonstrating the proper technique, but that is not what Maestro did. Lino told me to make a bowl, which I did promptly. Then he told me to make a foot, which is simply a hot gather of glass taken directly from the furnace and shaped into a tennis-ball-size glob. I made the foot.

He then told me to put the foot on the bowl, but just as I was about to let the hotfoot drop onto the colder bowl, he said: Wait. I stood there with the bowl in my left hand and the foot in my right until he gave the second half of the lesson: Now. I let the now slightly less hot footfall, and it went on perfectly. This blew my mind.

I was expecting a lesson in how, but Lino gave me a lesson in when. I already knew how—I had been doing the how part right for 15 years. My problem was when. If you make a shape out of glass that is too hot, you can make the shape, but the glass will just collapse afterward. If the glass is too cold, however, it becomes too stiff and you cannot make the shape in the first place. It’s timing, not technique.

I left the studio that evening thinking about all the other places in my life where I had done the right thing at the wrong time. How many times had I spoken when the other person was not ready to listen? How often had I been too late or too early with the right answer? I saw a cascade of failures over my lifetime resulting from knowing how to do something but ignoring when to do it.

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