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 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
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.
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.
 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.