Thought Series: 3 Lessons Business Leaders Can Learn From Master Craftsmen & Women

Thought Series provides actionable ideas and anchors for reflection on your life or your work.


Trade and craftsmanship are inextricably linked. We develop skills and learn to perform to a standard. We aim to be skilled in our respective trades. That said, most people will agree there is something sacred about true craftsmanship. Why is craftsmanship so rare? What can we do to cultivate craftsmanship?

There is, I believe, a craftsman in all of us. Everyone has untapped creative potential. Whether we’re talking about a stone carver or a paradigm shifting business leader it’s human nature to conclude that those who demonstrate unusual gifts owe their success to an almost magical quality that you’re either born with or you’re not: talent.

How we spend our time and what problems we choose to labor over says a lot about how we approach the idea of work. Moving an idea in any medium—working with raw materials or through people—is hard, but it is a battle that can be won through disciplined effort, focused attention, and obsession over a particular problem you feel drawn to solve. In fact, real-world problem-solving is most strongly linked to higher self-reported work quality. When your trade is in service of your craft, you elevate your work.

While the skills you bring matter, few of us ever reach the limits of our natural abilities. Instead what holds us back is a lack of commitment or a lack of focus. “Inspiration,” Picasso said, “needs to find you working.” Such advice often overwhelms us and makes us yearn for the recipe, standards, templates or blueprints to success. Showing up counts for a lot, because it deepens your ability. Effort matters.

But there is another component necessary to achieving true craftsmanship—preoccupation with your subject. Only when we are internally driven does effort combine with skill to manifest as achievement. In other words, it takes effort to get good at something. It takes effort to apply that skill, to create. But it takes obsession to hang in there for the long haul.

If you look at any master craftsman or admired business leader’s life story, for instance, they don’t begin by displaying savant- like brilliance at an early age. Clothing designer Eileen Fisher did not start out with the stores she has today. She started with a single rack of samples at a New York design show, “and it was a disaster.” In fact many craftsmen struggled. Several leaders experienced painful failures. What distinguishes their approach to their craft is that they regard the struggle to learn as part of the privilege of their craft. They work hard to make a difference and choose work that is worthwhile to them.

Rather than chasing a different dream each week or month or year, you need – at least eventually – to settle on a higher calling and never let go. Drive and determination, combined with single-minded direction, is what elevates your work.

Many people think that once you find your “thing” maintaining interest is easy—that it no longer feels like work. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow discusses the nature of work as complete absorption in what one does. While all masters and mentors referred to being in a “zen-state” or “meditative state” this mindset needs to be actively cultivated.

Interest and motivation are not fixed. They need to be nurtured and developed, much like learning a new language. Here are three steps from my latest research on master craftsmen and business leaders that you can take to develop yourself and level up your work – and begin to live and work with craftsmanship.



When you start a class or a job for the first time, you step in to a world where you don’t yet know the rules. This new environment has a particular ecosystem, with values, beliefs, procedures, and social dynamics that you have yet to learn. You do not yet know how to navigate the power structure, what passes for good work, or conventions for communicating with others. Your goal as you enter is to examine.

A common mistake is to “hit the ground running” in a way where you feel you have to prove yourself. If you are constantly seeking external validation and worrying about impressing others, you miss two things: nuances in the environment, and the ability to evaluate your own work. Early compliments can quickly become fickle, relying on them will lead you astray. Take time to understand the reality of where you are, how things work, and where you fit in best. If you want to impress others, it should be because of how serious you are about learning, not because you are trying to get promoted before you are ready.

Master craftsmen and admired business leaders have a preoccupation with a subject or concern. I refer to this as their inner compass (because it guides their awareness) and nothing will stop them in pursuit of this higher goal. How can you find yours if you don’t have one already?

There are two kinds of examining you are looking to do: internal and external. Mine your life. With what have you been and are you continually fascinated?

Second, observe and examine the system around you. Learn the rules that govern the system, understand “the way things are done.” Whether a craftsman or leader, these lessons are both spoken and unspoken, and a reflection of core values and beliefs. In business, you uncover these values by observing how successful people are recognized on the way up and how less fortunate people are treated while they struggle on the way down.

After taking in the rules of the system, it’s important to learn where the power lies. How does communication flow through the system? Who claims power and who actually has it? Who is moving up and who it moving down?

Last, what sparks you most about the environment you are in? Where do you find the most meaning in what you do?

By exploring these concepts, you can start to understand how things function, connect more effectively to your inner compass, and find your place in ecosystem. The importance of this step is to train you to examine every system you find yourself in so you can avoid costly mistakes. It is always best to look before you leap. And, you can’t effectively navigate the system unless you know it.



After you’ve been in your role for a while, you come up on the next principle of learning—choosing tools and acquiring skills. For some jobs, like operating a machine that always performs the same action, the skills you need to learn are obvious. Other jobs require more of a mix between physical and mental skills, like stone cutting or observing and collecting nature specimens to inspire a felting project. Still other jobs are vaguer, like working with and through people or examining research. Whatever the need, your goal is to make your learning simple, to understand what matters for you to become proficient, and what needs ongoing practice.

First, it is important to start with a single skill you can master. This creates your learning foundation. This will increase your focus and deepen your concentration.

Second, it is important to manage your frustration with setbacks. Challenges in learning are predictable. Anticipating early struggles, frustrations, resistance, and the fickleness of new commitment can help you better prepare. These things cannot be avoided when learning something new, no matter how motivated we are to attain mastery. The only way is through.

Marc Sokol, Editor of Human and People Strategy Magazine, commented on the nature of perseverance:

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.

This practice of skill is best understood by considering the greatest learning-by-doing model ever created: the apprenticeship. Given how little information was available in the Middle Ages, apprentices learned through observation, imitation, and repetition. Certainly their hands-on learning amounted to much, much more than the 10,000 hours needed to learn a skill. It’s not just engaging in a domain for thousands of hours. You have to change how able you are to do something. Anders Ericcson refers to this as deliberate practice. The cathedrals, castles, and walls are powerful examples of craftsmanship and engineering. Accomplished without the benefit of blueprints or books to describe them, and the result of engaging in the smallest of tasks, they represent the accumulation of skills and knowledge of several generations.

Learning through observation, practice, and repetition has a long history. We learned to hunt, forage, make tools long before we could speak. Even if the task is purely mental in nature, like learning a foreign language or computer programming, our like brains like the routine of learning by doing. In other words, reading-theories-doesn’t-make-perfect, practice makes perfect.



Operate on the boundary of what you can, and cannot do. The shortest and most critical part of the learning process is taking all of the skills you’ve acquired and actually putting them to the test—literally. A map can only get you so far. Sooner or later, you are going to need to evaluate your environment, rely on your gut, and use your judgment pm what direction to take.  Experimentation could mean that you step up and take more responsibility which invites more criticism of your work. Ari experimented each time he applied his current skills toward opening a new business. Master ceramicist Louise Pentz experimented her way through a sculpture by creating and destroying her way through it. She explains her process:

You have to make a lot of mistakes. You’re hoping for the mistakes, because that is usually where things are most exciting. Too much control and the outcome loses some of its essence. It ends up just like everyone else’s outcomes. Average. Within the norm. Mainstream.

Often when I create a piece I’ll build it and it will be good, but not very exciting. It’s good, technically, but I wonder ‘how I can give life to this piece?’

I start to break it apart. I might hit or punch the clay with a stick or I’ll rip a piece off of the side. All of those gestures make the piece stronger and better in my eyes.

Through working an idea, editing, and experimentation, you start to gauge your own practice, develop your own standards. You learn to take a stand in the presence of others’ judgments. In pursuit of ongoing development, you seek constructive feedback.


Inner awareness and observation help guide us so that we do not need to be told what to do. Gaining new skills through deliberate practice helps us develop the ability to accept feedback and introduces us to standards. Seeking new experiences, we decide if it would be easier and safer to operate within a template, to do what we’re told, and to stay within our comfort zone—or if we feel the compulsion to forge ahead.

Like attempting the high dive for the first time, freedom is deeply attractive as well as terrifying. We are confronted with the question: Who would we be if we were truly free? There are surprising ways to access moments of freedom regardless of circumstance and it often results by initiating action before you think you are ready—just like taking the leap off of that first high dive.

You’ve completed your apprenticeship in a particular skill when there isn’t anything left to know in this environment. Your experiments no longer make you uneasy. Things become more or less predictable. Where to go next? Go deeper, find a niche, or both. By finding your true calling, honing your craft through dedicated deliberate practice, and responding to setbacks with an optimistic, problem-solving approach, you will follow in the footsteps of the many outstanding Mentors and Masters I have studied, all of whom are characterized by that mix of awareness, skill development, and practice.

To believe that only a lucky few are born with true talent, while the rest of us are not, is demoralizing. You might understandably wonder whether the focus on craftsmanship simply shifts this concern to a different trait: that perhaps a rare few are blessed with innate talent for superior work while us lesser mortals are destined to weaker will and an absence of meaningful work. In fact, studies suggest that mastery and achievement are not inherited traits, but abilities requiring cultivation. The common factor in people that live and work with craft is how they deliberately practice and change themselves and engage in very goal-directed practice activities. This leaves plenty of room for the rest of us to be influenced by other factors such as life experiences and deliberate cultivation.