What does it mean to learn Craft?
My career has been focused on two things: building products that would present new user paradigms and cultivating data-driven systems to determine what to do with those products. In the 90s and early 00s, building products was an electric experience because we were reaching and interacting with the first online audience—ever. The internet enabled unprecedented creativity in rethinking and redefining communication, productivity, personal information management, marketing and advertising, and community (to name a few things) as we knew it. Then, we were tasked with figuring out how to drive revenue from those ideas. Data was needed, and a lot of it. Attitudes clashed about innovation, ethics, and basic economics. What information could we ethically maintain and utilize in our systems and for what purpose? How should the “user” be “managed” during a “transaction?” What were the core elements of loyalty, and role would that play? Eventually, the market stabilized. A few products business models rose to the surface. Businesses grew more predictably. Creativity started to decline. Risk taking was discouraged in favor of efficiency, productivity, and scale. The the first conversations of artificial intelligence and machine learning were just getting off the ground.
It was in that climate I decided to move in another direction, earning degrees in applied behavioral science and psychology to gain more perspective on intuitive knowledge and subjective intelligence. The innovative, creative thinking that had laid the foundation for e-commerce, personalization, and communication had begun to spark some ideas about innate human knowledge (subjective intelligence), and the kinds of decision making we engage particularly when we are in under pressure. I wasn’t finding AI to be that creative. Leaders had developed such a heavy dependency on “data-driven decisions” that they stopped relying on other ways of knowing. They denied their own experience and that of others. They ignored insights from other disciplines. When developing core corporate strategy leaders too often asked, “What does the data say?” instead of synthesizing analysis with a grounded value system and seasoned perspective. If the quality of our thinking was potentially declining in favor of being told what to do by machine output—what was our state of mind when we were engineering these solutions? or making big decisions about what these machines would do? My fear was: if AI develops the abilities beyond humans (e.g., playing chess, surgery, law, etc.) how would humans maintain an adequate partnership?
These questions both excited and terrified me. And if I’m being honest, they still do. We get offended at the thought of losing jobs to machines, yet we have an ever-increasing reliance on them.
Where are the people living and working with Craft?
As each wave of technology passes over us, we go through phases of emotions. There was an infectious enthusiasm that took over when the iPhone, iPod and iPad launched. iPhone adoption was unprecedented and the iPod changed how we listen to music almost over night. There is a lot of anxiety and deep fear about technology replacing humans at work. Our system of education, workforce training, and 9-5 work days contribute to this systemic problem. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence is quickly and seamlessly becoming involved in every aspect of our lives. It assists us in our schedules, helps us through our days, finds us a mate, keeps track of us while driving, remembers our fitness levels, and it answers questions as our partner in getting things done. It has shown up as a servant (AskJeeves) and now it shows up as a virtual assistant (typically female) keeping track of our behaviors. Artificial intelligence is the GPS for our lives. This slow “invasion” of our human experience shapes our expectations of what role technology could and should be in our lives.
As data advances more and more into our lives and decision making, however, it’s important to remind ourselves that we have the capability to chart our own course. AI (for now) is there to enhance our abilities and experiences. This knowledge can, quite literally, confirm we are on the right path. If we change our direction, our GPS can respond to us with an alternate route, another series of choices. “I’ll remember the grocery list; I’ll get this ready for you; You like these items, maybe you’ll like these recipes; I’ll make this reservation; I see you’re out of this item, I’ll buy this thing. No problem, you changed your mind; I’ll send it back, no worries.” Slowly, we are training an other, more efficient version of our presence to anticipate and help us manage our life.
People who live and work with Craft—engage in the struggle for individual agency in a world telling us to fit in. They use their work as a medium for personal expression and they know something that top analytic minds still need to learn: how to solve the problems when no predetermined plan, no template, and no quick fix will save the day. They cultivate, inhabit, and maintain a state of mind capable of holding paradoxical tensions:
Subjective reasoning: the ability to arrive at a conclusion based on intuition and/or experience. Craftsman are analytical, and they also reason.
Flexible purposefulness: The ability to have an over-arching view and remain flexible enough to allow for adaptations as the experience unfolds.
Cognitive emotions: The ability to be involved emotionally to one’s work, and also very thoughtful and perceptive.
Craftsmen take risk. Their very character influences the outcome of their work. They display a level of insight in their respective mediums due to a deep fascination with the idiosyncrasies and nuances of their medium that borders obsession. They subject their humanity to the market’s scrutiny, demanding exponential growth and scale as a primary value. While craftsmen are very adaptable in terms of their improvisational problem solving, they are unwavering in their values and ethical boundaries.
It is here we can benefit from learning to think with Craft. We must learn to understand ourselves on a fundamental level. We need profound insight, not just annual feedback. We need work that is worthwhile, not a mere transaction. When we lack true alignment with the work we were meant to do, we live our lives 6-degrees off course. We ameliorate versus resolve problems, failing to gain and therefore missing the opportunity for the kind of proximity needed true, creative solutions.
Craftsmanship is a set of principles that apply to the modern world—to us as potential craftsmen. We can learn about ourselves through our approach to life and work. I’ve experienced this myself, and I’ve witnessed it in my clients.
It is my hope that my work about living and working with Craft can help us navigate this period of change, where the pull for ever more data requires us to dig deeper into ourselves for knowledge and insight, giving us new ways to think about the problems we are confronting. These themes remind us that there are multiple forms of knowledge innate in each of us—but we must mine it and synthesize it in order to more deeply understand it.