Craftsmanship—much like leading, parenting, or aging well—isn’t for the faint of heart. My understanding of the topic comes from interviews, observation and participating firsthand in many different learning environments (corporate, academic, and public) where craftsmanship was a fundamental though often disregarded characteristic of the subject at hand. These experiences helped me identify what works and what does not when it comes to the topic of living and working with craft.
One undeniable trait of these craftsmen is that pursuing craft requires a spirit of perseverance. This perseverance is not blind.
An Editor’s Perspective
People say the key to being an entrepreneur is perseverance.
Well, guess what?
Successful entrepreneurs and unsuccessful entrepreneurs are often just as persevering. But, successful entrepreneurs figure out when adapt, and unsuccessful entrepreneurs don’t.
There’s a cognitive difference and a readiness-to-pull-the-cord difference, as opposed to optimism and perseverance.
–Marc Sokol, Editor, Human and People Strategy Magazine
The journey to truly superior performance requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts. It took many of these craftsmen the better part of a decade to achieve anything resembling expertise. They worked at investing their time wisely, by engaging in deliberate, ongoing practice. Their practice reached for tasks just beyond their current level of competence and comfort. Some were initially guided by effective teachers or masters, others had no one to help them. Each one of them learned how to guide themselves.
Four aspects continually frustrate efforts in achieving one’s craft:
It’s hard to tell a novice everything that’s involved.
While all craftsmen interviewed agreed skill requires dedicated practice, they each had a hard time saying what it came down to specifically. We see this when athletes are interviewed after a major win. They are asked to explain it—what actions they took, and why they decided to take those actions. They are being asked to tap into an automatic response network. For them, it was second nature. They know what to do, how to do it, and why…but it doesn’t take the same level of concentration it did when they were struggling to learn.
Louise uses words like feel, being in flow, a desire to communicate or speak through the medium. She refers to being disconnected and becoming reconnected to her work. These words start to get to the difficulty in communicating what occurs in a state of flow when the mind is clear and someone is responding intuitively to what is in front of them.
LOUISE: I want to say the most using the least. I can’t go there directly. I have to almost finish something and then start to de-construct. We want to be in control of life. But the only thing we can control in life is our reaction to something.
When something is created partly by the accidents, that’s life. We can all relate to it. Our humanity relates to the flaws, the vulnerability. Every day we are trying to be careful not to have an accident. Yet, it’s the accidents that are truly more expressive of our experience than our careful creations.
You have to learn how to self-edit. With experience, comes the knowledge of when to walk away. When you don’t know what to do with it, walk away. Come back tomorrow. It’s always cooking in the back of your brain, resolving itself. You’ll see some line and think ‘that is so beautiful’ why don’t I do this or that? And, you’re influenced, you’ll come back to it.
She also describes specific actions she took to create a look or mood, through the process of deconstruction.
LOUISE: I’ll take a big stick to something that’s so smooth it’s boring. I have a big piece of burnt firewood. It’s got all these textures and splintery surfaces on it.
On this hip area I’m going to belay into it. I don’t even really see what I’m doing, I just bang, bang, bang, bang on it—and then stand back and see what I’ve got.
Was I in control or not? I can’t answer that. It’s both. But it’s allowing the material to tell you something. It’s allowing that figure to become something that is not under my control just like no other person is under my control.
What she is saying is not instruction on how to get the same result. She’s describing her process for learning in her medium. There’s more happening in these moments that she can describe. While people with expertise (teachers, coaches, etc.) can help guide the way, craftsmanship really comes from the internal struggle for self-expression. Each pot, sculpture, wooden bowl, metal horseshoe…is a statement of that craftsman’s work through their medium, which leads to the next aspect of learning expertise.
Craft cannot be learned from books; it must be applied—with repetition and experimentation.
No amount of TED talks, online courses, degrees, or books can replace the learning that comes from comes from actually producing something. If you are not producing, you are not actually practicing anything. The answers are not found in a coach, training, or book. You have to do the work—deliberately. Craftsmen force themselves to engage in what Anders Ericsson, who wrote Peak and studied high performance, calls “deliberate practice,” where we do things that are a little bit hard and uncomfortable, but that forces us to think.[ii]Louise reminds me by quoting Picasso, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”
The more the emotions of frustration or resistance are examined and converted into learning, the more expertise, and transformation that occurs. In the beginning, doing something new can be an adequate source of energy. But the thrill of the new gives way to frustration, thwarted progress, feelings of incompetence, and inconsistent results. Over time, we find a groove. A deeper, more sustainable energy source sustains the desire to continuously learn.
Learning requires embracing the unfamiliar and sitting in uncertainty. There is no escaping risk. Expertise relies upon giving up some of what we know in order to learn.
LOUISE: If you don’t show up and put in the time and make a lot of mistakes…. if you aren’t making a lot of them you aren’t learning anything.
When I rip a piece off and it’s bigger than I intended, I think it’s a mistake. But when I step back, it happens to look better and encourages me to edit more. It’s a better piece because of it.
True craftsmanship and expertise come from dedication, mindful perseverance, and practicing what might not work. A mistake can encourage learning. Avoiding experimentation is a choice not to learn.
LOUISE: My best work has come when I’ve been willing to destroy it. This piece is too dry, the cracks are too deep. That’s a technical problem. I’ve got this idea to make it better. What happens when I pour a bucket of water on it, or soak it overnight? That is technically something you are not supposed to do.
I learn so much that way, and I can do so much for my next piece. I know how to make those deep cracks now; I know how to get far more interesting edges now.
It’s normal to fight, wrestle, and struggle with the work. You are still connected to it when you are trying to figure out what you are saying. It’s only going to be good if it’s not about me if it is its own piece.
The craftsman has an idea and she wants to communicate it through her medium, but sometimes the message gets stuck. The choice to remain stuck or maintain status quo can occur due to the constraints of the medium, or the struggle for the competence of the craftsman. Louise makes an important point here, suggesting that fault does not lie with the medium but with us, when we can’t manifest our vision the way we want to. She often refers to the work becoming “separate” from her, or the piece “effectively communicating” or “taking on a life of its own” at some point during the creation process.
A CEO’s Perspective
I think the problem is people not believing in what they’re doing and they’re trying to find a quick right answer and there isn’t one.
– Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s
Craftsmanship is emergent.
The paradox of craftsmanship is that the harder we push toward well-defined goals, the more indescribable our expertise becomes. It comes in Louise’s judgments on when to beat, pierce, or destroy something that is too perfect. It comes when she decides how she will fire her clay. Craftsmanship emerges when we follow a connection, get a feel for something we like to do, versus simply trying to achieve a goal. Her awareness of her own needs and the needs of her work and her medium come with practice. This is what “present in the moment” means since once she takes action toward her vision, she progressing toward her goal.
The willingness to be with uncertainty, of not knowing what result she’ll get, is what ultimately helps her realize an emergent state. Emergence springs from the rhythm of her dedicated practice. She shows up, day in and day out. This means that not every day produces the outcome she is looking for. Yet, because she is present with regularity she is present when emergence does occur. Her established habits provide structure for emergence. Habits increase her skill and enable her to witness it when it comes.
A CEO’s Perspective
Foundational understanding of business is important. Then, be brave. Because the box we’re in, it isn’t working.
– Jostien Solheim, CEO Ben & Jerry’s
Craft is about the journey, not the destination.
Such a trite and overused phrase, but clichés are true for a reason. What worked yesterday might not work again today. What worked today might actually fail tomorrow. Today’s mistake might be tomorrow’s success. This is the cadence of trial and error and of learning.
Craftsmanship adds another dimension, responsiveness. The phrase “every now and then” when “the gods will touch the [craftsman’s] hands” that the work will achieve new heights. Another way to think of it is being in active collaboration or conversation with the medium itself. Louise actively seeks to not be in control, allowing the medium to respond to her vision, and to become what it will become.
When feel and skill integrate, the novice has their first experiences of getting a feel for the work—like those first moments of balance on a first bike. It is a moment when the right skill is applied at the right time, in the right manner, for the right problem.
A craftsman’s bond to her medium is achieved when tools are practiced, proficiency is gained, and the soul gets to participate in work she is interested in. For Louise, craftsmanship weaves itself through much of what she does and it peaks during the performances where she finds her bond with clay.
LOUISE: One of the judgments I make toward the end is, “what can I remove and still say what I want to say?” I change the line, the surface marks…but what part of the work is unitive and what part is controlling?
Anyone engaging in learning a craft deeply in any discipline will face these four challenging dynamics. As such, it’s fortunate that craftsmanship provides benefits to make up for the certain anguish that accompanies the early period of gaining expertise. Above all, if you want to achieve top performance as a manager and a leader, you’ve got to forget the folklore about genius. Genius and its cousin inspiration are believed to be divinely inspired. This notion makes many people think they cannot take a scientific approach to developing expertise. This book is here to help you explore those myths, by providing insight to the elements necessary for good practice, and how they work together.
Craftsmen are made, not born. Achieving craftsmanship, being in and of the work you are doing, gives you access to intense and nuanced experience in the discipline you pursue. It means reaching an advanced level of performance that’s both skillful and unique in character. Finally, it generates the internal motivation required to generate tomorrow’s commitment.
This post is part of a series #LookToCraftsmen set for publication in 2019.