More difficult than achieving expertise in something is describing it, especially to a novice or someone outside their medium. When asked directly about their expertise, virtually none of the craftsmen referred to themselves as an expert. While all had a master designation, they all felt they were still learning, still developing an edge to their skills. They also described the challenges of their medium by using other disciplines: “Clay drying is different than paint drying.” An interesting analogy, but to a novice in both disciplines, the implications of dry clay versus dry paint are lost. They talk about having a feel for their material, understanding the pace of the work, and showing up deliberately in their practice. Across the board, the actual work was described as “meditative.”
What does a novice do in the face of this level of ambiguity? The death of the industrial age has exposed a level of uncertainty we are not used to. We reach for playbooks, follow recipes, seek templates that we know will work—we do what is familiar, tried, and proven. We become conservative in our experiments. We start to think conventionally. This is the very reaction I am working toward changing with this book.
The work we do matters. How we go about it matters.
The degree to which we can dance with uncertainty is in direct proportion to the ingenuity of our problem-solving capability. The more we risk what we know, the more we learn. The better our skills get, the more we can engage uncertainty (in ourselves, in others, and in our environment), the greater our capacity for solving problems. Increasing our capacity for uncertainty increases our tolerance for dealing with the unknown. The more problems we directly interact with, the greater the change we are capable of making in the world.
Skills are about meeting a standard. Mastery is the ability to create your own standard. In order to achieve mastery, we need to be improvisational with our skills, like a craftsman. It’s our choice, then, to find what level of uncertainty we can effectively manage when we learn something new. My wish is that these vignettes provide a way forward for people interested in developing their life craft, in whatever work they do.
So how do I know about craftsmanship? Through detailed interviews, observation, and hands-on learning. I wanted to understand what made their approach to work unique in a way that didn’t repeat what I was trying to avoid: a top ten list, a template, or a playbook. Too often we are looking to emulate that a handful of leaders or companies that enjoyed a unique set of circumstances, at a particular time in their development. In business, we sometimes believe that if organizations do those same five things, or produce the same kinds of products, we too can get where they are. The organizations we admire, it turns out, do enjoy a prime state but seldom stays there for long.[i] Virtually every company featured in Good To Great peaked at the time of that book’s initial publication.[ii] Greatness in business is generally measured in stock market return or market share. We might imagine that we’d like to be in their shoes, but most leaders in those positions have such a high-risk profile, their focus is on playing not to lose.
For this effort, I sought people performing at their peak with a different definition of success. They regard the struggle to learn as part of the privilege of their craft, of working hard to make a difference and do work that is worthwhile to them. From these individuals, I gathered detailed descriptions of their work, I observed them, with some I even practiced alongside, and I recorded my understanding of their efforts in action. The findings in this book are the result of that effort.
This process formed my ideas about the essential qualities of craftsmanship. I learned how craftsmen regard and engage problems, the relationship between process and outcomes, and the emergence of craft from a foundation of inner knowledge that generally goes unspoken and unseen. This project also informed me about the potential of our innate ingenuity.
In analyzing how craftsmen approach their work and how that work reflects them as individuals, I wanted to know how the eager and awkward efforts of an apprentice can transform into the flowing precision of a master. I wanted to understand an approach to living and working that’s possible across all fields, and a way of learning that helps people wrestle with the ungainliness of the beginner. I wanted to understand a way of engaging a business that helps people grapple with the uncertainty, change, external expectations, uniqueness, and complexity of organizational growth—while solving societal problems. I wanted to understand how people across a variety of sectors—from engineers, members of a band, to leaders of organizations—can effectively apply their uniqueness to a problem at hand, using business as their medium for creative self-expression.
This approach to business—call it craftsmanship.
Interviewing master craftsmen and business leaders about how they learn; I wanted to understand what motivates them; what inspires them; how they orient themselves toward their work; where their attention wonders when they are at work; how they go about their work; how they confront challenges; and, how they push against the constraints of their mediums. We discussed how they manage the tension of remaining open to the surprises (that enable creativity), while demonstrating control (expertise) in their craft. This research resulted in a navigation system for business and leadership discussed later in this book that anyone can apply toward their own development if they look beyond scale as a primary goal and think of their work as a medium for creativity and not a template to fit into.
Once we sat down, I asked them questions. A lot of questions. What do you value most? What made you get this going to the degree that you have? What was the biggest decision you ever made? What was your biggest mistake? How do you ignore the competition and maintain focus on your personal vision? How did you find your purpose? What has influenced you most in your life? What is success? How do you know you’ve achieved success? When do you feel pressure to conform? What do you do about that? —to name a few.
[i] prime Mintzberg, H. (1984). Power and organization life cycles. Academy of Management review, 9(2), pp.207–224. and Adizes, I. (1979). Organizational passages—diagnosing and treating lifecycle problems of organizations. Organizational dynamics, 8(1), pp.3–25.
This post is part of a series #LookToCraftsmen set for publication in 2019.