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Work Like a Craftsperson and The Power of Thought Experiments

August 2, 2017

Interesting Thought: Work Like a Craftsperson

I'm not at all handy, so the satisfaction of fixing a broken sink or blown electrical circuit is one that I don't know. But it's got to be a good one. The thing isn't working. I do something to the thing. Now it's working. What joy! A tangible result, traced directly back to one's actions. Filling as a prime cut filet. 

The closest I come to experiencing this type of satisfaction is writing. I start with a blank page and, if all goes well, I finish with one that is full. But unlike in the above examples—the water runs; the lights turn on—with writing, it's a bit harder to discern whether or not I did a "good" job. 

Just about everything I've ever written has one thing in common: some people love it and some people hate it. And, I'm becoming wise enough to understand that, love or hate, a reader's response often has more to do with what they are experiencing in their lives than it does with my writing. 

How, then, should I judge my work? 

By holding myself to the standard of a craftsperson.

Did I put my all into the work? Did I approach it with care? Was I willing to chisel away at each sentence? Did I do the writer's equivalent to using sandpaper, reading a near-final draft aloud multiple times?

Here's Jon Gordon, writing in his outstanding book The Carpenter: "While most people approach their work with the mindset that they just want to get it done, craftspeople are more concerned with who they are becoming and what they are creating whether than how fast they finish it." He goes on to write that, "The craftsperson is only thinking about building his work with love...when you care about your work you stand out in a world where most don't care. Caring leads to success." 

If this sounds familiar, it's because it is. As I've written about before, Robert Pirsig, one of my intellectual heroes, called this Quality. Pirsig's Quality takes a capital "Q" because it's a special kind of event that occurs between a subject and an object, between an actor and his or her act. It's when the former is so completely present for and dedicated to the latter that they become hard to separate; they become one. Though Pirsig struggled to define Quality, he made it clear that sincere caring is the foremost precondition. 

"Care and Quality are internal and external aspects of the same thing," Pirsig writes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. "A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who's bound to have some characteristic of quality."

Pirsig wasn't the only one who struggled to define quality. The scholar Avedis Donabedian, who pioneered the movement to measure "quality" in healthcare, said that we'll never be able to fully capture the word's essence. Perhaps the closest he came was from his deathbed, when he told a journalist, "Ultimately, the secret of quality is love.

Though most of us work in fields in which external outcomes are often open to interpretation and events beyond our control, we can all adopt the internal standard of a craftsperson. The value of doing so is immense and extends far beyond creating what we can own as "good" work. Because if our ultimate goal is a good life, then the best way to achieve it is by being intimately engaged in the process of living. Whatever you do, proceed like a craftsperson—with caring, Quality, and love.


Coaching Corner: The Power of Thought Experiments 

“If Isaac Newton would have been a track coach, imagine where the records and our understanding would be?” Legendary track coach, and my (Steve's) mentor, Tom Tellez made this off-hand remark to me almost a decade ago. Tellez went on to speculate how Newton would have taken on coaching each of the various track disciplines. Tellez wasn’t engaging in this idea for fun or idle speculation, he was using it as a thought experiment. How would a genius take on this task? Following Tellez's example, I’ve tried to continually ask how others would tackle coaching, or for that matter, any problem in life.
As I recently read through Alain de Botton’s take on the philosopher Michael de Montaigne, I found myself asking how would Montaigne approach coaching. Montaigne was a French Renaissance philosopher who believed there were two kinds of knowledge: learning and wisdom. Learning encompassed traditional rule-based knowledge like grammar, logic, and etymology. Wisdom, Montaigne thought, was simply anything that could “help a man live happily and morally.” In other words, wisdom required a direct-line to functional improvements. To carry wisdom, knowledge must help us. Otherwise, it's just knowledge for knowledge's sake. 
If Montaigne were coaching, I think he would have ignored most of our traditions and rules. He’d do away with the pace charts, the exacting speeds, and the certainty. He would have a fit with the 10 percent rule of mileage increase or the changing of your shoes after 300 miles. Even more so, he’d despise the scientific coach, the man who could cite enzymatic reactions and spout on endlessly about muscle fiber types. Those are all pieces of knowledge that one learns, but, Montaigne would ask, do they carry wisdom?

Montaigne was not anti-science. Instead, he was against anything that did not translate to everyday life. In Montaigne’s training program, everything would have had a direct impact on an athlete as a person - to help him or her run (or live) better. In other words, each training session would have to improve the man or woman him or herself, and training knowledge was only important if it carried over to such functional improvements. In many ways, Montaigne’s views might have mirrored those of the legendary coach of the 50's and 60's Percy Cerutty, who did away with an emphasis on the exacting details of a workout and instead focused on instilling character in the athlete.
Of course, when performing such thought experiments we will never truly know the answer. I wish Montaigne was around to ask, but he's not. But that misses the point. By asking how someone else would tackle a problem, it forces us outside of our own perspective, minimizing our inherent bias, and opening our mind to new ways to tackle the puzzles we encounter.


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