What learning is really like, case study of one.

So, I took a blacksmithing class last week and I want to share a bit about how that went from a learning perspective.It was at a local place call Lawless Forge. It's a neat joint, self-styled as a team-building venue. I wouldn't define it as team building since there isn't any formal team building or skill building. They are strictly a blacksmith studio that enables urbanites to feel like craftsmen by enabling basic blacksmithing skills. This is not to be confused with a trade school.The fire was real, just like in the documentaries.The anvils dated back as far as the 1700s - if they could speak I'll bet they'd have some stories.There was an ethos.We came in with a simple understanding of what we might be making: garden sticks of some kind.The instructor came to my friend and I and asked, "What do you want to make?" We thought the experience was pre-defined for our success. We did not expect to have to have invested in a vision--and for the most part it was. But the open-ended question was instantly intimidating. But with freedom came inspiration.Pinterest would guide us. Yes, that is where all good ideas come from, isn't it?"How about this?" No."This?" Too complicated."What about--" No.Left to our own devices, we had high hopes and big dreams.And, we met reality.Comments from the time we spent give you some sense of the arc of our experience:

  • "The metal in documentaries looks a lot softer than this feels."
  • "My metal isn't bending, am I not hitting it hard enough?"
  • "My hand hurts."
  • "That fire is very Game of Thrones."
  • "My wrist is cramping."
  • "This is harder than I thought it would be."
  • "My vine doesn't look real."
  • "At all."

This is what learning looks like and feels like--a lighted hearted perspective on a light hearted activity. We forget that when we try to pick up a new skill, like learning how to dance, how to become a manager, or how to make a garden ornament isn't something we can become proficient at in 3-hours or less. It takes time, dedication, and practice. It also takes a genuine interest.

The Nuggets?

My research on master craftsmen, how we get better at what we do, and how to take greater responsibility for your own learning is something I'll continue to share and explore in this blog. There are many lessons to be gleaned from this experience but I'll leave you with two:

  • Finding a fascination with your primary material is the key to both creativity and perseverance. Genuine fascination with something particular gives you a unique advantage: the ability to see what most people don't. When you bury yourself in the particulars of something (metal, people, the problems of government, clay, homelessness, etc.) you see opportunities, experiments, and solutions that no one thought possible.  Fascination also carries you through the hard times of frustration, boredom, and most important--failure. You have to have enough interest with what you are working on to care at failing. I have a whole new appreciation for what it takes to create something with metal. And, I learned metal was not my medium. 
  • In order to create change, you need proximity to the problem at hand. I've observed, studied, analyzed, and written about how we get better at what we do, and the value of a beginner's mindset, but that is and abstraction to the actual experience of learning by doing. Think back to the time you became a new manager. You read a book, maybe had a training. If you were lucky, a manager discussed a few ideas with you. But in the end, you learned by confronting another human being and trying to achieve results through them. 

So next time you are taking up a new idea, subject, or problem give some thought to where you are in your learning cycle, and what aspect of the problem you are trying to solve most fascinates you. Then, go deep!

Tying Story to A Navigation System

Photo by  Hello I’m Nik

Everyone has a unique navigation system. Following what others have done as a recipe is not the path toward developing your own originality. If I had spoken with the owner of a local lumber yard, a soccer mom, a government official for neighborhood engagement, I would have gotten very different stories about how they go about fixing and replacing a broken window, what was important to each of them about the materials they used or their approach to solving the problem. The common elements would have been the intelligence categories and that each category would be rich with unique information.

This Navigation System is a way for novices to look at and learn from anyone and learn from their unique map. You will see what any Navigation System can and can’t produce by looking at the outcomes it generates. You can better understand the relationships between intelligence categories. You can better understand the differences between craftsmen of all kinds, across multiple disciplines. You can better understand what those with expertise are trying to explain as they try to teach. Most importantly, you must develop your own Navigation System based on creating learning opportunities. Creating a Navigation System is a conscious effort and the beginning of a personal practice in becoming a craftsman.

Using the Navigation System below, we can summarize Eric’s Navigation System. We can collect and give meaning to what he shares about his learning and development in woodturning. As students of craftsmanship, we can use this Navigation System to understand the often abstract, contradictory and sometimes inconsistent things that Eric, like most people with significant expertise, says as he describes his approach to learning.

(c) 2016 Christine Haskell

(c) 2016 Christine Haskell

The chapters that follow describe the intelligence categories in greater detail, illustrate how a map evolves over time, and show how teachers and students can use them to enhance and focus their efforts. Here, I’ll summarize how a Navigation System can make craftsmanship, in any profession, a real option—especially for those who find it disappointingly intangible.

The concept of craftsmanship, as it is applied to leadership in organizations, is fragmented. Craftsmanship, as we have been discussing it in this book, refers to the advanced capability of a whole person—from inner purpose and identity, to tactical skills, to applied experience. Employees are often valued simply based on their technical skills. For development, they rely on resources such as: self-help books, seminars, formal employee trainings, advanced degrees, internships or special projects, and hard knocks. These resources are typically driven by the fundamental belief that if someone achieves craft, if their talent separates them from the pack, it is driven by innate talent rather than developed capability. As a result, they place little emphasis on the design of learning and development of capabilities that would develop a craft. Learning designed around the Navigation System idea has several advantages that standard learning and development strategies do not.

The Navigation System illustrates previously hidden or opaque workings that generate craftsmanship.

Each Navigation System has the same intelligence Orientation, Abstraction, and Application categories. Understanding what these categories are and how they are influenced helps us recognize what we need to learn, identify gaps, and design experiences to fill them. The Navigation System serves as a tool to document, discover, and develop effective personal knowledge.

A Navigation System provides an emotional grounding that counteracts the initial frustrating, discouraging and disappointing experiences created by our initial clumsy, inexperienced efforts.

Emotional reactions to novelty, uncertainty, and personal incompetence tend to distract, confuse, and mislead us as we try to develop a new skill. The Navigation System helps focus attention where it is more productive. Each category of intelligence requires a focused learning approach, as do the relationships between categories. Obstacles can be anticipated, so learning can be targeted, challenges can be appropriate, and intelligence can be integrated. Ideas learned intellectually need to be grounded in experience if they are to be effectively internalized. Equally important, the relevance of what is learned is determined by the identity and outcomes that motivate the action. The alignment of these three intelligence categories produces the integrated awareness and action that make craftsmanship possible.

The Navigation System turn the frustrations of early efforts into valuable information.

Rather than interpreting failures are a sign of incompetence or indicators of a lack of potential, errors reveal incomplete knowledge, inconsistency in experiences, and breaks in connections between intelligence categories. Different approaches are required for each intelligence category. Knowing where and how to invest time in learning or gaining experience is helpful for any learner.

Using a Navigation System to negotiate failure harnesses the conflicting forces that drive Expertise and Ingenuity.

Advocates of expertise typically value reliability, efficiency, and automatic skillfulness. They seek to minimize surprises in order to reduce mistakes caused by lack of skill or erratic events. Advocates of ingenuity value openness and creativity. They seek to abandon constraints and predictability to escape errors caused by blind adherence to routine and dated practices. When you focus on a Navigation System for Craftsmanship instead of merely avoiding errors and accomplishing predetermined goals, you are more able to respond to events or qualities you didn’t anticipate with greater skill and openness. When the development of a Navigation System is your focus, learning is driven by the enthusiastic pursuit of new experiences and can be further refined.

A Navigation System can be used to help you understand what drives change, and how to manage it.

No one likes to change. Change is threatening. When we feel threatened, we are less open to new ideas. Change is, however, unavoidable. Three kinds of change drive progress in craftsmanship. Changes in Experience come from incremental and adaptive challenges during hours of practice in a given medium. Changes in Tools and Skills come over time through large and small revisions to how experience is understood and organized. When changes in Orientation Intelligence occur, they often bring transformation. Mental models begin to shift.[ii] Fundamental beliefs shift enabling new ways of seeing and being in the world. All three kinds of change are unavoidable once craftsmanship is established as the primary goal.  Explicit development in each Intelligence Category allows you the ability to anticipate and even seek the kind of growth that will help you level up in all three Intelligence Categories.

To this point, we’ve concentrated on a few practitioners who employ subjective skills and intelligence, and we’ve introduced the underlying knowledge that enables their craft. Next up, we will go directly into the workings of the Navigation System and understand the elements and forces that make it run.

This post is part of a series #LookToCraftsmen set for publication in 2019.

A Framework for Learning: 3 Kinds of Intelligence

Photo by  Rich Smith

Photo by Rich Smith


Collective intelligence involves a transformation in the way we think about human capability. It suggests that all are capable rather than a few; that intelligence is multiple rather than a matter of solving puzzles with only one right answer; and that our human qualities for imagination and emotional engagement are as important as our ability to become technical experts.

Philip Brown and Hugh Lauder, Capitalism and Social Progress



Craftsmanship is an emergent capability. It cannot be approached directly. Too often when we engage in learning something new, we start by trying to replicate the thing that inspired us. Like babies learning to walk or talk, we mimic or copy others. As adults, we often look to the finished performance or piece rather than the grind of getting there. If I were to attempt the gingerbread trim Eric works on as my first project, for example, it would lead to frustration and disappointment. A much more productive path to learning craftsmanship is to understand how various categories of intelligence form an internal Navigation System.


  • How does one describe something that is so intangible? Something that decades of psychologists have not been able to quantify? Something that people with certain skills can recognize on sight, but couldn’t think of a way to directly test for?

  • I looked over my interview notes, developed themes, and started asking questions that captured, sometimes verbatim, descriptions of what it means to live and work with craft.

  • Half the questions had to do with perseverance but specifically resolving challenges that lie just beyond their current skills. I asked if they “overcame setback to overcome a challenge” but also, how. Did they “take classes, ask others for help, or engage trial and error?” The other half of the questions were about their connection to their work. I asked, “how their interests have deepened over time” and about the nature of their “obsession” with their medium.

  • What emerged was a personal Navigation System—an approach to self-reflection that if honestly undertaken, illustrates your ability to approach work like a craftsman. The model can help you can get better at what you do and take responsibility for your own learning by highlighting experiences and questions to broaden your awareness.

In speaking with masters across several disciplines, a navigation system emerged supporting the kind of craft we’ve been exploring. Understanding how we learn helps direct how we go about our work and can inform how we might do it with more attention to craft. People learning something new can use this navigation system to make better sense of and learn more from those with more expertise, even when they communicate incompletely or inconsistently. Using this as a tool to increase awareness, the novice can also learn independently with greater effectiveness. The system contains three distinct categories of learning: Experience (gets you where you want to go), Tools (shows you where you are headed), and Guidance (anchors you where you are).

  • EXPERIENCES are about walking the territory. They include awareness, savvy, know-how, practicality, skills, understandings, feel, instinct, techniques, methods, and appearance. All skills, even the most abstract, begin as physical practices. With these fundamentals, you experience and shape qualities in your creative medium to produce results. Craftsmanship relies on all three categories of knowledge are working in concert. Then, you develop a nuanced awareness of the qualities in your creative medium (business, woodwork, healthcare, etc.), as well as the skills to create and manipulate those qualities.

  • TOOLS are about using the map. They include ideas, concepts, models, equations, theories, categories, heuristics, diagrams, plans, recipes, standards, criteria and prototypes. Understanding abstraction requires the powers of imagination. These elements help you to organize your understanding and preserve knowledge.

  • ORIENTATION is our inner compass. It refers to our sense of direction and is our guidance system. It includes purpose, principles, incentives, morals, individualities, motivations, identities, values, beliefs, contexts and missions. These elements are core to your identity. They provide meaning, motivation, attention and direction. Your identity shapes your work.

These categories of intelligence link and inform one another as we learn. Using my conversation with Eric about his craft, I’ll introduce the Navigation System and demonstrate how it works.

The model illustrates the components of a personal navigation system. It contains three distinct categories of learning: Experience, Tools, and Orientation. By understanding these intelligence categories and the relationships between them, you can take more responsibility for your own learning and drive your own path toward craftsmanship in whatever you do. We have three categories of intelligence. When one category informs another, it naturally drives shifts in thinking.


As I listen to Eric, I want to understand his Navigation System. His stories provide a window to how he approaches his craft. He shares a series of circumstances that led to his opportunity to develop a trade and later a craft. His words also point to sometimes disruptive forces that move the Navigation System forward. True craftsmanship never plateaus because craftsmen are in a constant state of learning and trying to break the boundaries of their medium.

Eric shared that his pivot from auto shop, to logging, to the sophisticated woodworking he does today is guided by those that believed and invested in him (his shop teacher, the banker, and the owner of the building in need of restoration). The belief of others, and more importantly their sponsorship, is important to the success of someone learning. Not only it can be very motivating, it can direct someone’s life path. This sense of taking advantage of every opportunity, of “taking a bite at the apple”, dominates his drive to learn. Achieving what he sets out to do, Eric turns anxiety into belief in himself—which remains his primary motivation.

Eric is in and of the Redwood Forest and uses the materials around him. He is also in constant pursuit of the new, building up both his home base and skills base by taking jobs squarely outside of his area of expertise. He acquired the tools for a blacksmith shop, a pottery kiln, and a printing press all to complete projects for which he didn’t have the immediate abilities. “The problem solving is what I thrive on and I’m good at it.” All of his tools are from before 1948, the year he was born. Eric doesn’t think he “works well with the mainstream” and so has crafted a life and world for himself where he doesn’t have to mix too much with it. Secluded in woodland, he reaches out much like a radio signal seeking connection on his own terms (and turf). All of his choices would be unthinkable to someone with different orientation ethics such as fast growth, using the cheapest materials possible.

ERIC: We tell our customers jokingly that we offer three things: speed, quality, and price—and they only get to pick one. We don’t use off-the-shelf products. The machines I used are the same machines my father and grandfather would have used. Everything we do is high-end, custom work. Yes, we’re late. Yes, I underbid the job. Yes, the customer is pissed we slipped our date. But we have to make certain that all that magically goes away when we deliver—and it happens every time.  

Simultaneously, Eric has been influenced by several social revolutions in his Guidance that orient him with his medium. There was the time when lumber prices fell so low people thought the town might collapse. Then technology in the form of lathe cutters made competing on price against national hardware stores an impossibility. Later, green movements placed emphasis on working sustainably, making Eric’s approach to work more attractive again. Living through these revolutions helped form Eric’s perspective and value system.

ERIC: Computerized bandsaw mills were slicing out more boards in a minute than I could make in a day or maybe a week. But all the big timber companies are on the edge, just about priced out of the market. Us gyppos[1] are going to be all that’s left one day. We’re like the bears and the banana slugs and the mushrooms out in the woods. We’re native species, and we’re not going away. Not until the woods themselves go away.

Changes in Guidance tend toward the revolutionary.[i] Experiences we have to change the perception we have of ourselves and our reasoning behind decisions. Happening within ourselves or around us, these revolutions change the meaning of our actions and choices.They change our place in society relative to others. Craftsmen were regarded as obsolete as production in factories rose. Now, there is a resurgence of Makers (maker movements, maker spaces, etc.). Some woodworkers have amassed followings by creating popular YouTube channels. There are now several shows on television featuring craftsmen/maker competitions.

As major changes in global consciousness take place, it impacts the Tools we choose. As Eric reflects, woodworking is an evolution in understanding.

CHRISTINE: Tell me how you figured your way through a hard project.

ERIC: Did you see the Lincoln Hearse? Nothing that we did for that reproduction had been done since 1863. That was incredible! I did that with twelve veterans that had never had a tape measure in their hands before.

CHRISTINE: What were you really up against? What were you trying to tackle?

ERIC: Metal castings. How do you make the original pattern and make it big enough so when the metal shrinks, it shrinks to the right size? How do you cast it, finish it, gold leaf it, and get it on the hearse? That was just one thing.

We built that whole thing off of a single photograph. There were no records, plans, or blueprints.

When the railroad sent the hearse to Springfield, the bill of lading said “The wheels on this vehicle are oversized. They are 56 inches in diameter instead of the standard 50, $1.50 extra.” That gave us the scale. I scaled the whole thing off of the rear wheels.

This image, taken in 1865 in Springfield, Illinois, is the only known photograph of the hearse used for Abraham Lincoln

This image, taken in 1865 in Springfield, Illinois, is the only known photograph of the hearse used for Abraham Lincoln


ERIC: I worked with four historians and would get on the phone at the end of the day to check in and they would say where I nailed it, or where things needed to be lighter or heavier—and to them, all the changes they were asking for were easy!

Woodturner Eric Hollenbeck puts the final details on the hearse last week before it is shipped to Arizona for painting.

Woodturner Eric Hollenbeck puts the final details on the hearse last week before it is shipped to Arizona for painting.

The final project after other team contributions were brought together

The final project after other team contributions were brought together

CHRISTINE: What did you learn from this project?

ERIC: Working with vets gave me part of my life back that was taken from me. The American Indians got it right. They knew, just like the VA, that it took two years to train a villager to become a warrior. But they also knew that it took 1-2 years to train a warrior to become a villager again. When the young warrior came back, he was not allowed into the village. He was met by an old warrior outside the community. For a year or two, they would make circles around the village, smaller and smaller until they brought him back home again.

That’s what the military can’t get their heads around today, and the work I’m essentially doing with them now, in projects like this.

Here Eric shares how his intelligence between Orientation and Tools connect. He’s a master wood turner and historic preservationist, not a handyman. He organizes and connects to a project in a way that emphasizes the details, bringing a heightened awareness, authenticity, and quality to his work. While he revised his interpretation in collaboration with historians and built custom tools to create unique molds and parts for the hearse, he never changed his fundamental stance toward woodworking.

Eric is guided by quality, aesthetic, meaning, and challenge. He arranges his work and his life to achieve these in a way that ensures consistency in his results. And he defines that consistency. Some work he does over and over (such as millwork), other projects (like the hearse) are opportunities of a lifetime. Small or large, Eric uses his Experience to create and judge the work he does.

Eric’s aesthetic, his choice in tools, and his drive to engage in challenging projects just beyond his level of skill influence how he goes about his work. He didn’t invent the windows, doors, cabinetry, decorative items, or wrought ironwork he produces, he interprets them. Reconstructing Lincoln’s hearse using the measurement from a wagon wheel highlights perfectly one of  the paradoxes of craftsmanship: how expertise and ingenuity relate (see figure 3.1). This relationship is shown through various contradictions of his story. He is true to his values and the skills he knows. He won’t compromise on quality work. In parallel, he employs ingenuity to produce signature qualities he wants in all of his work. For example, he’s developed a craftsman’s apothecary where he boils the essence from redwood, black walnut, amaryllis, and iron oxide to make his own varnishes, stains, and paints.

Where a musician has scales and a painter has a palette, Eric has wood. He uses mostly redwood, but also oak and birch. Based on his training, Eric cuts these into basic sizes and gets to work. He uses his theory of the particulars of wood—how it bends, manages heat, negotiates water, or absorbs stress—to imagine the possibilities for a project. Then, to produce each piece he has to predict how it will look. He uses those predictions and techniques to make the piece he wants, then recognizing the look, textures, smell of the wood or stain he wants when he achieves the finished product. This is Experience in action.

We might take it for granted that Eric has this applied ability. After all, he’s had well over than 10,000 hours working with it. Every woodworker has to be well-acquainted with the qualities and temperament of wood; without that knowledge, he would have to rely on books to tell him what to look for. However, the number of woodworkers that achieve Eric’s level of integration between creativity and skill are few. He does what he does well. He’s gotten very good at it and as a result, people have beaten a path to his door. Those people include U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, who was so impressed by what he observed that he included Hollenbeck as a featured participant in the 1993 timber summit in Portland, and President Clinton, who honored him in his 1994 Earth Day speech.

Even as Eric is creating a simple window, he is doing so to his own sense of aesthetic. His applied experience has enabled him to create his own standards. Arriving at this level in his craftsmanship, he has fully integrated expertise and ingenuity in his work.

Figure 3.1 shows this relationship. The forces that drive expertise are conventional. Expertise relies on predictability, standards, refinement, and controlled action. In contrast, ingenuity is driven by risking some of what you know in order to learn something new. Craftsmanship is propelled by the back-and-forth of these two competing forces.

Working within the paradox and tension of change, Eric relies on traditional tools and skills from the past, established by others. And, he follows his own aesthetic and standards for quality. He reads a lot of books. And, he operates instinctively solving problems by improvising his own tools. He follows classic technique, while also spontaneously responding to his materials and project constraints. He uses varnish as they have always been used. And, he creates his own version of them, to his specifications. The knowledge of others has been incorporated in his foundation and he has built on top of that. If you really want to understand woodworking, Eric suggests, you have to “get in the shop” but he also embodies a more philosophical approach.

ERIC: … the answer to everything is floating around us all the time. Kind of like droplets of water in a mist. For those who are open enough thinkers, without boundaries, without walls, we can reach out of and grab those little pieces of answers—those drops of mist—and act on them. And I truly believe that. If you can get yourself focused enough and eased up enough to be receptive, you can reach out and grab the answer to the problem at hand.

The constant interplay between expertise and ingenuity, or in Eric’s case traditional approaches and creative workarounds, contributes to the quality in his work and what we recognize as craftsmanship in the work of others. It is not a skill easily obtained. For Eric, it has taken a lifetime of effort, belief, failure, improvisation, creativity, and perseverance.

[1] A gyppo logger (sometimes spelled “gypo logger”) is a lumberjack who runs or works for a small scale logging operation that is independent from an established sawmill or lumber company. They avoid borrowing money, make do with the resources available, avoid hiring help he does not need and remains willing to adapt to whatever circumstances dictate.

This post is part of a series #LookToCraftsmen set for publication in 2019.