Craftsmanship: Doing the ordinary extraordinarily well

I think scientists and artists are tapping into the same biological drive: creativity. I also think that specialization is needed to fully unleash our creative potential (that’s one of its perks). However, I’m in danger sounding elitist, since not everyone can or should be a scientist or artist. How does a manager, a farmer, or factory worker, or any other neo-hunter fit into the framework. One word: craftsmanship.

Craftsmanship is an elusive little idea. It’s hard to pin down exactly what it is.
What makes a craftsman? A craftsman is highly skilled. She puts emotional and intellectual energy into her work. She pays attention to detail. She sees her work as a reflection of her values. While an exact definition is difficult, most people have and idea of what craftsmanship is.

What’s interesting is that craftsmanship is a fusion of both analytical and artistic creativity. The archetypal shaker box is a model of both function and beauty. It is produced with great care and attention to detail. Even seemingly mundane details in its construction are connected with higher values and principles. The product is elevated to an ethical and spiritual ideal.

Unfortunately, few of us are craftsman. Especially when we start out, we aren’t particularly skillful. Many of us don’t put much emotional or intellectual energy into our work, especially if our work is easy and the system we’re working under does not punish incompetence or reward excellence. The services and products we produce may be far removed from their ultimate benefactor, and seem even further disconnected from the lives we lead outside of the nine to five workday. Modernity does not encourage craftsmanship.

In many ways, it was a lot easier for the first 40,000 years of our journey as behaviorally modern people. The hunt for food was rich with feedback; you either succeeded or failed. Your success and failure was linked to the survival of your friends and family. If you got the details wrong, you went hungry. You were physically, emotionally, and spiritually invested.

How do we regain our identity as craftsman and connect our jobs with the our creative drive? Beats me, but here are a few thoughts:

1. Remember that when you go to work, you’re essentially on the hunt, bringing home the bacon. To quote Desmond Morris, you’re “setting off to capture the biggest game in the biggest and best hunting grounds his environment has to offer”. You’re hunting a better idea. It might be a strange, abstract task, but that’s how the modern game is played.

2. The Devil (and God) is in the details. I’m usually not very good at the details, since I’m more conceptual, but the older I get the more I agree with the cliché. The difference between mediocre and excellent is found in the details. When you’re pursuing a goal, it’s often helpful to visualize it as concretely as possible. That way you have a detailed vision to shoot for.

3. If your work is easy, make it harder. A lot of us subconsciously do this by taking on too much anyway.  It probably makes more sense to focus on one thing, but elevate our expectations. I’ll have a future post on flow theory, but for now remember that optimum experience tends to occur when challenges are finely balanced with skills. That means you should be struggling, but not so much that you never get a glimmer of success.

4. If you’ve been trying for a while and you have this feeling deep down in your very soul that your work is boring and pointless and doesn’t do anyone any good, you’re probably right. Find something else. The world of work would be a lot better if people followed their conscience.


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