Attention to Detail With David Rees

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NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CHANNELS/JOEY L

In his new show, Going Deep, artisanal pencil sharpener David Rees explores how to tie shoes, flip coins, dig holes, and perform other quotidian tasks with care and sophistication. Here are his tips for staying sharp.

I just stumble into stuff. I started sharpening pencils because I got a job with the U.S. Census (pencils were used for completing forms), and I wondered, “Wouldn’t it be cool to do this for a living?” That was a challenge for myself: Could I get paid to do this?

I like the idea of taking something you do every day without thinking and saying, “Stop, slow down, pay attention.” It opens up the world to you through this particular lens.

I’m up to my 2,000th sharpened pencil. At this point, my price is $40 a pencil. If someone’s gonna pay that I’d be a fool not to do it.

When I’m sharpening, I think about how it’s going. I’m paying attention to the pencil to see if it’s gonna split. Sometimes I zone out, but usually I’m thinking about the craft. If I sharpen a pencil, bag the shavings, refine the point, fill out the paperwork, and ship it. I can usually do four an hour.

There’s this guy known as Professor Shoelace in Australia. He has a different way of tying a shoe. You make both bends first, and you pass them through each other at the same time. It’s crazy—it looks fake. It’s three times faster than the old way.

The biggest influence was Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. That’s my favorite TV show ever. We wanted to make a show that had that spirit of curiosity and adventure but for a slightly older audience. As a kid, it blew my mind when Mr. Rogers went into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and was like, “It’s a set,” and explained how they made the show. He took you seriously as a viewer. He respected your imagination and the fact that we’re dealing with reality, even if the Neighborhood of Make-Believe is a set.

The things I’ve had the most success with are things I started doing for myself. Cartooning—I didn’t think anyone else would be interested in that besides me and my friends. Then I was a cartoonist for seven years. When I try to make things I think others will give me money for, it’s never as much fun, and I think that lack of fun shows in the work. People respond to sincerity and enthusiasm.

Don’t quit your day job. I mean, keep the structure and income and light social interactions that characterize office work. I started cartooning when I had a
day job. Then I quit and had nothing to react against.

Goof off. Sometimes you have to do stuff for fun, without worrying. If you’re making money being “creative,” sometimes it’s unclear if you’re doing something for fun, for money, or for fun but also for money.

I love jumping off rope swings—that’s probably my favorite thing in the world.

'Going Deep' premiers July 14 at 10pm EST on the National Geographic Channel

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

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