Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

The Craftsman in the Cubicle

July 25th, 2010 · 33 comments

 Old Town Zurich

An Old Town Wander

Earlier this evening, I explored the cobbled lanes of Zurich’s old town center. Switzerland is infamous for shutting down on Sundays — a legacy of a rigid Protestant past — and tonight didn’t disappoint; I often had whole streets to myself: the fading sun lighting the Renaissance-style row houses in the same way it has for hundreds of years, stretching back to when the city was still run by the guilds.

The scene, naturally, infused me with a sense of timeliness. I imagined the craftsman and apprentices who honed their skills in this late-medieval industrial center, and this got me thinking…

The Lost Craftsman

Craftsmanship fascinates me.

In his eponymous treatise on the subject, Yale Professor Richard Sennett calls craftsmanship “an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake.” The craft culture in pre-industrial Zurich, as it did throughout the history of skilled labor, provided apprentices a way to harness this desire, and use it to transform the slow, uncomfortable mental labor of getting better, into something noble and welcomed.

Sennett notes, for example, that the ancient Greeks saw their master craftsman god, Hephaestus, as a bringer of peace and civilization, saying: “Craft and community, for the early Greeks, [were] indissociable.” Getting good wasn’t just a sage financial strategy for the Greeks, it was woven into the fabric of their civilization.

Here’s my concern: We’ve lost much of this craft culture.

Students, for example, maintain an antagonistic relationship with their school work and the mental strain it demands. They fall back on the pressure of a deadline or impending college admissions decision to force them into reluctant engagement with the material — a recipe for burnouts.

The same issue plagues the modern workplace, where work is reduced to fuel for a task completion system and we fear ambiguity or scale in projects. After a while, we require the constant low-dose dopamine drip of e-mail and profile checking to limp through the endeavor.

Hephaestus, we can agree, would be pissed about this current state of affairs.

The Craftsman in the Cubicle

I’m mentioning this topic now because it’s one that has been sloshing around in my head for the past few months. I’m curious about what it would take to rebuild a sophisticated craftsman culture in academic and post-grad life — the goal being to repair our relationship with the difficult work of getting good.

Over the next few weeks, the blog might get somewhat chaotic with the news and events surrounding my new book release. (The book, by the way, touches on this philosophy.) In the meantime, I wanted to leave this thought to marinate.

We’ll return to it soon.

(Photo by swisscan)

33 thoughts on “The Craftsman in the Cubicle

  1. Chris Frank says:

    The Talent Code is a great book that discusses how to build this kind of skill. The book is mostly about building skill in sports and music, but the principles could be applied to anything. There’s a great section about Renaissance artists.

  2. Adam Smith called guilds “a conspiracy against the public.” So I’m curious to learn more about why you think it would be helpful to rebuild a sophisticated craftsman culture. Seems to be a pretty contrarian view.

  3. Peadar Coyle says:

    I’m concerned about this too. Something I struggled with at college, was the deep procrastination that you mentioned. Forcing oneself to work to a tight deadline – rather than enjoy the actual improvements in getting ‘good’. In Matthew Crawfords ‘Shopclass for soulcraft’ he speaks about the dichotomy of Management Consultant versus Craftsman. And the fact that we’ve lost the value for expertise. A friend of mine is soon to finish his Postdoctoral appointment in Mathematics – he specializes in old fashioned Analysis techniques – Bessel Functions, Hypergeometric Functions, Asymptotics – things that nowadays get replaced by Mathlab and Mathematica. He is quite scared that some of that mastery and skill of truly understanding the proofs and theorems underlying a craft. Theoretical Computer Science, Physics, Mathematics, Engineering, are all crafts. We mustn’t forget that. I regularly get asked why I spend so much time doing Mathematics – even when I’m currently not in fulltime study – the fact is that I feel that becoming good at something is a worthwhile pursuit.

  4. Tyler says:

    The link seems to be broken, it is “ttp” when it should be “http”.

  5. pH says:

    I’m looking forward to this series. Figuring out how to be drawn to my studies instead of drained by them seems difficult to me.

  6. Melody says:

    Have to agree with what you said. I’m beginning my third year in university soon, and too often I see many of my classmates – myself included – viewing work as a necessary evil to get to the grades we want. It doesn’t help that we’re in a teachers’ institute, so it won’t really matter what our grades are anyway.

    Recently I’d been struggling with a dilemma as to whether I should change my major. My old major was literature, which I used to love but recently found it a chore to study. I began to resent my work, like you said, and only did it just to ‘get through’ and not to perfect my skills. I made the decision to change to English (which was originally my minor) because I found myself viewing the material very differently, challenging myself to master each module. After reading your post I’m glad I made the switch. 🙂

  7. Mr. E says:

    Such an idealist. Craftsmanship is for rich people and it always has been.

  8. Nick says:

    I definetly feel this way in my life right now. I have been unemployed for most of the past year, with the goal of going to grad school always on my mind. I excuse myself another month because I want to research my career/school options just a bit more…which I think is ok for a short amount of time still. However, I think and agree with your statement about doing a job well for its own sake as a possible kick in the tush to make a decision…as opposed to wait for the “perfect” one.

    To play devil’s advocate, though, I have to ask this. I read Scott Young’s blog religiously, like yours, and I remember a guest post you did regarding the Art of the Finish. How does one balance the need to focus on finishing while not reducing work to a task compeletion system?

  9. uSooth says:

    Wait! I see where you’re coming from but I’m not sure you’ve got the whole picture. Do we really “fear ambiguity and scale”? As a society we take on gigantic, world-changing projects. Just look at the Genome Project. “Task completion systems” are tools for coordinating the completion of complex projects in an attempt to engender predictability. Predictability is about time and resource management and, ultimately money.

    Surely there were task managemet tools used to build pyramids in ancient Egypt, and to complete the Sistine Chapel without leaving out a major Prophet or a Sibyl?

    Deep mastery of skill is part of any significanat project. There are plenty of craftsmen out there today. Look, for example at the professionals who are developing nanotechnology or who compete in the Tour de France. We may refer to them as “geeks.” These are today’s craftsmen — mired deeply in their interests and developing their skills, sometimes to the exclusion of the social culture around them.

    It may be the case that too few of us strive to develop our skills to this level of commitment because we don’t discover our passion. Too often grad school or vocational school is about something besides the development of a deep-seated interest. Identification of true interest, combined with ability and the values that come with craftsmanship (which vary by the craft) are the hallmarks of the master.

  10. Study Hacks says:

    The Talent Code is a great book that discusses how to build this kind of skill

    I read that book. Fascinating stuff, though a little too much neurology for my tastes.

  11. Study Hacks says:

    Adam Smith called guilds “a conspiracy against the public.”

    I think you might be taking my concept too literally. I’m not calling for a return to guilds. (seriously?) When I say “craftsman culture,” I mean building a work philosophy that puts us at piece with difficulty.

    And the fact that we’ve lost the value for expertise.

    This is another fascinating angle on the issue: how much has our discourse of admiration steered from expertise and toward instinct, great ideas, natural talent, and/or luck? Our modern business success story, for example, is Google, which, as commonly told, has little to do with expertise.

    Craftsmanship is for rich people and it always has been.

    I thought it was the buying of craftsmanship that was for rich people?

    However, I think and agree with your statement about doing a job well for its own sake as a possible kick in the tush to make a decision…as opposed to wait for the “perfect” one.

    Good!

    To play devil’s advocate, though, I have to ask this. I read Scott Young’s blog religiously, like yours, and I remember a guest post you did regarding the Art of the Finish. How does one balance the need to focus on finishing while not reducing work to a task compeletion system?

    I don’t know! Which is why the topic fascinates me. But I suspect, however, that a mature craftsman philosophy would make a system like churn rate unnecessary.

  12. Study Hacks says:

    Do we really “fear ambiguity and scale”? As a society…

    Point taken, there are lots of craftsman out there in certain fields: sports, science, the arts. A clearer way of making my point would be to clarify these underlying principles I bring it into new settings, like entrepreneurship, school, and mid-level employment.

  13. Peadar Coyle says:

    In the UK, one columnist talked about how people have changed their perspectives on craft. Craft does of course still exist in society. The columnist cites the ‘reality TV generation’and talks of how a surprising number of people think they will win a Reality TV show. I think the major point of your article is to take the principles of craft into whatever fields we work in. Will the next generation of business success stories be any different, I notice that there is a lot of apparent expertise in the Solar Energy/ Wind Energy sectors. Clever engineering from people with years of experience.

  14. Maureen says:

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I try to finish my Ph.D and decide whether or not accademia is really for me after all. I’m drawn to physical crafts though I believe that ‘craft’ can be thought of in many different ways. The important point is to learn a skill and do it well. You should check out the series Mastercraft on the BBC which was hosted by Monty Don.

  15. MCG says:

    Cal, you wrote, “How much has our discourse of admiration steered from expertise and toward instinct, great ideas, natural talent, and/or luck?”

    You are testifying to the effects of Progressive Education. It has substituted creativity for mastery and despises the humble human tools of mastery, like memorization.

  16. Suzyn says:

    I think you’re absolutely right to draw a link between craftsmanship and satisfaction. Craftsmanship, as I have experienced it, involves doing something — and paying attention to what you are doing — over and over until the little nuances of the process become clear, and eventually become second-nature. Yes, this often means facing frustration head-on, but getting through that frustration is immensely satisfying. A nice bonus is that the skills you amass can be very valuable.

    Here’s the thing, though. Eventually, you start to look at the frustrations themselves in a different light. It’s an attitude shift, from “Ok, how I get around/through this as painlessly as possible? Maybe I’ll go eat some cake first.” to “Whoopee, let’s dive in and get messy and learn something new.”

    There’s a psychological component, too – if you “need” to see yourself as smart or in charge at all times, it’ll be a lot harder for you to face frustration head-on. You may *gasp* feel stupid until you get it. This changes, too, over time – you realize that there’s a big difference between not knowing something and being stupid. But with our educational system’s focus on “self esteem,” I fear we’re setting students up to avoid frustrating situations that don’t “feel good.”

  17. Brian says:

    A related book you might enjoy is Shop Class as Soulcraft (http://www.matthewbcrawford.com/). He explores the meaning that can be found in intelligent manual labor that is often missing in the cubicle culture of “knowledge work.” I liked a lot of his arguments, but I found myself feeling his same principles could also be applied to knowledge work; it just takes a shift in approach. The key is whether you are acting as an assembly line unit or as a craftsman.

  18. URAHARA says:

    Interesting – craftsman in a cubicle…
    Let’s see what you are going to share with us.

  19. Study Hacks says:

    You should check out the series Mastercraft on the BBC which was hosted by Monty Don.

    Good suggestion. It sounds like the Brits are ahead of us on these issues.

    There’s a psychological component, too – if you “need” to see yourself as smart or in charge at all times, it’ll be a lot harder for you to face frustration head-on.

    Perceptive. At MIT, for example, the most successful grad students usually go through a transition like this: they start grad school petrified that they will be proved dumb, and are always looking for markers that they are smart; eventually, however, they give into the craft of it, embrace what they don’t know, and then start building up worthwhile knowledge from scratch.

    You are testifying to the effects of Progressive Education. It has substituted creativity for mastery and despises the humble human tools of mastery, like memorization.

    A fascinating, if not somewhat loaded, connection. Food for thought…

  20. Study Hacks says:

    A related book you might enjoy is Shop Class as Soulcraft

    I bought it the day it came out. It’s a very influential book for me. (I actually gave my copy away because I believed in spreading the ideas so much.)

  21. Maria says:

    Thank you for posting this. I have been experimenting with re-framing unpleasant tasks with Flylady’s house cleaning methods (it only looks like you are scrubbing a toilet, you are actually blessing your home, yourself, and the people you love!) and find that it makes necessary, but not thrilling tasks much, much more doable.

    I am applying this to a monster graduate-level statistics assignment. I am not thrilled by the subject, but it its absolutely necessary for any sort of research (which is what I want to spend my life doing). Instead of whining to myself about having to spend my evening doing statistics instead of something more fun, every time I start to whinge inside my head I think “I am refining my craft” and my focus returns to the task at hand and I give it the attention that it deserves which will make me a better researcher with the not-unwelcome side effect of keeping up a stellar grade.

  22. Estara says:

    I just found this incredibly interesting story of a girl who has cultivated an interesting life before high school – and is making a wonderful impact on the world…certainly an example worth analyzing and following….you should see this, Cal!

    http://shine.yahoo.com/channel/life/from-seedlings-to-servings-11-year-old-grows-tons-of-veggies-for-the-homeless-2070656/

    On another note, I am quite excited for the stuff coming up on this blog…just in time for a new school year, too – a good way to begin cultivating a craftmanship attitude…or bettering it.

  23. Love this book. I think and agree with your statement about doing a job well

  24. URAHARA says:

    >Replaced creativity for mastery…

    I do not agree. This qualities could be part of the same, some one’s ability. In my understanding – mastery is a high level of some one’s ability, which could (should) include creativity as well.

  25. Study Hacks says:

    nstead of whining to myself about having to spend my evening doing statistics instead of something more fun, every time I start to whinge inside my head I think “I am refining my craft”

    Excellent.

    I just found this incredibly interesting story of a girl who has cultivated an interesting life before high school

    Timely. If you’re interested in injecting similar interestingness in your life, my new book is all about that topic.

    do not agree. This qualities could be part of the same, some one’s ability. In my understanding – mastery is a high level of some one’s ability, which could (should) include creativity as well.

    Maybe it’s better to say “focused on creativity in isolation of mastery.”

  26. URAHARA says:

    >Maybe it’s better to say “focused on creativity in isolation of mastery.”

    Elusive meaning. I’ll try to think about it once again.

    (Probably I can not get it since I am generally thinking about things as connected with each other; directly or through other parts of the whole. And the whole could be seen, if at all, when you achieve mastery.)

  27. Matt says:

    I just discovered this blog recently, and I’ve been enjoying what I’m reading here. For context I am a grad student in an engineering field. I work with probationary and deficient undergrads (GPA

  28. s.a.m. says:

    Hi,

    I know exactly why many students rely on the pressure of deadlines to get work done. It is because they don’t understand what the work is really for. They can’t really relate it to real goals in life or how they can really get ahead and be successful in life. I sure didn’t, when I was in college.

    The trick is to understand why you are studying and becoming “a craftsman” by defining a clear goal for yourself and what you want to accomplish and also understand how your work will help reach these goals. I think a 10 year set of goals was even mentioned here on this blog. How many students really know what they want to have, reach or become in 10 years? The students who are good, have clear goals and an understanding of how their work brings them closer to these goals. The ones who aren’t don’t have real goals or they don’t really believe in them or themselves for that matter.

    I feel it is as simple as that.

  29. Byron Allen Black says:

    I enjoy reading your essays, after having been linked here through a private newsgroup. But you should definitely acquire the services of an editor. I noticed a reference to “…pilates training…” in the “Following Your Passion” column. I presume you mean “training airmen” and not “training wannabe Pontius Pilates”. Also, in the essay above you use the word “timeliness” when you most probably mean “timelessness”. Check out the difference.

    Do you bother drafting what you write? I know it can be hard (I hate to read what I’ve written, but force myself to); this is, however, an effective way to snag errors and clean out ambiguities.

    But it’s best to have an expert at your shoulder. Another set of eyes can be invaluable for proofreading and editing checks.

  30. McLonzo says:

    Students, for example, maintain an antagonistic relationship with their school work and the mental strain it demands. They fall back on the pressure of a deadline or impending college admissions decision to force them into reluctant engagement with the material — a recipe for burnouts.

    I’m not really sure I agree with that. I’m going into my 3rd year right now as Mechanical Engineer. The usual way I operate is through forced rush to get what ever it is done. If I have a paper that’s do at midnight, I’ll wait till 10:45 pm to even start it. I just think its useful. I don’t feel burned out at all, at least not yet. But are you saying I should spend twice as much time studying? Sounds cliche, but I’ll try it.

  31. kaycee says:

    I agree about how prevalent I believe this topic really is. I think it is definitely true that people as a whole are generally trying to get a job well done. It is just a part of who we are that we try to do our best in most tasks we attempt. The author of this article is concerned that we are losing the craft culture. I agree we as a community seem to be losing our drive to do things well and enjoy it. It seems we are procrastinating and that makes us set up a path toward burnout. It is sad to see the society go this way, but if we can see the direction its going and we know what direction we want to go we can change the whole course.

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