Craftsmanship and Creativity: The Art of Showing Up Long After Passion Leaves
“It was bitter work, but the results were worth it.”
I’ve always been fascinated by the work of skilled craftspeople. They are experts of making something absolutely beautiful out of simple material.
It’s clear that they’ve developed and honed a very specific set of valuable skills. Although craftsman may invoke images of woodworkers, bladesmiths, or similar professionals, I think there are more craftsmen then we often think.
I would consider a mathematician deriving an elegant proof, an organizer uniting a divided community, or an inventor finalizing a world-altering invention in the same light.
It’s often easier to see the elegance and skill of craftsperson who works in the trades as their work is very concrete, but the craftsperson label applies to all who push their chosen craft to new heights.
Why Care About Craftsmanship?
Craftsmanship is admirable because it’s a rare commodity in a world of planned obsolescence. A majority of major companies design their products to phase out after a specific period of time. Gone are the days of building things to last lifetimes. In many cases, we’re now aiming for things to only last a handful of business cycles.
Craftsmanship flies in the face of our new norm. Instead, a craftsperson focuses on completing a job so well that the impact will last for generations. When objects and institutions are built to last, people who are yet to be born can benefit. This philosophy implicitly prioritizes the next generations, the prized jewel of all nations.
Aside from the social benefit of a craftsperson mindset, craftsmanship is valuable because it is hard earned. In a world of instant gratification, where almost everything is available at the click of a button, things which require endurance and come slowly suddenly gain mythic proportions.
Not only has a craftsperson tried and erred repeatedly, but they have dedicated immense hours to one thing. Since no one is motivated all the time, it is likely that a sizable proportion of these hours weren’t pleasurable. They had to endure the inevitable dips of learning and mastering a skill.
The gap between blissful beginner and fulfilled master is wide. A large portion of skill development occurs after the beginner's joy of the new skill vanished and long before the thrill of mastery. In learning any skill, this is the most dangerous part and where most people are inclined to quit.
Many people would argue only the passionate could persist through these trials. In some key ways, I’d say they were right. They’d have to believe in the value of the task they are doing and have an appreciation for where they could go.
These same people would also suggest this would require the aspiring craftsperson to know what they are passionate about before embarking on the learning journey. I believe this is false.
Our intuition and assumptions about what we would like or dislike are usually pretty awful. They are unreliable barometers at best, and sirens at worse. Although we believe intuition will lead us to the promised land, more often, if left unchecked, it will run us aground.
Instead, I believe passion comes from engaging with and improving in an activity. Through engagement, one slowly becomes a professional craftsperson.
The Professional Craftsperson
So, you may be asking, what distinguishes a professional craftsperson from the amateur? I think there are three important criteria for making this distinction.
Showing up Despite the Occasional Pain of the Work
Of my three criteria, this is the most vital. The reason for this simple, professionals show up even when there aren’t immediate rewards for the work and it’s not at all enjoyable.
This is the primary definition I use to differentiate the professional from the amateur. Thankfully, I’m in good company. Skilled writers such as Stephen King agree with this sentiment. In essence, the amateur believes that good work will come when they are sufficiently motivated. The professional knows that motivation is a useless driver of success because it’s fleeting.
Instead, professionals swear by consistency. Focusing on the perfect product isn’t optimal. First drafts are usually shit and require revision. When you change your metric of a successful day from creating an optimal piece to just making headway you release yourself from pressure.
Without pressure, you’re more likely to be relaxed, enjoy your work, and enter a flow state. These three things together increase your likelihood of producing creative work. Even if none of your work is useable, the habit of constantly sitting down a producing a fixed amount of content increase your odds of producing something passable, and maybe eventually good.
Of course, consistency is painful. Some days I simply don’t want to sit down to write/edit/rewrite. A key to becoming more professional is realizing pain isn’t something to fear.
Professionals use pain as an indicator that they’re on the right track. Inevitably, the art of creating has good and bad days, professionals have hung around long enough to internalize this truth.
The suckage of pain is also useful for personal satisfaction. We wouldn’t know what good is if there wasn’t occasionally moments of suckage. Good times and completed projects feel good and are special because they aren’t the norm.
In many crafts, the mundane ass-in-chair time is the norm. Some days are particularly horrendous, and a select few are glorious.
Recognized for Their Skill
As we spend more time with a craft because we consistently show up, we eventually become better at it. With a little luck and a lot of hard work, eventually, we’re recognized for our increased skill.
I don’t believe that external rewards should motivate a skilled craftsperson, but they can serve as an indicator of mastery. External accolades or a strong word-of-mouth reputation are traditional indicators that someone has achieved reliability and excellence in their chosen craft.
This is especially true if someone refers a craftsperson to another close friend or family member. Typically, we are protective of our first order network. These people are anchors in our lives and those we don’t want to harm or lead astray. Referring another person to those in our inner circle is a strong sign of confidence and faith.
Although a charlatan occasionally sneaks in, most referrals are a consequence of demonstrated mastery and professionalism. The recognition and growth of their brand is social proof of their skill and dedication.
Of course, there are arguments against using peer-recognized expertise as a judge of skill. What is favorable and good now may not always be viewed that way; however, while group consensus isn’t a perfect metric, and is prone to issues like biases, it’s still a decent indicator.
Another, less subjective measure for skill is their ability to meaningfully solve issues with their skillset. This measure is less subjective because we can break it down into a valid question with a binary answer. If we’re able to affirm a person’s ability to consistently solve issues with their skill set then we should recognize the value of their hard work and skills.
Especially in a capitalist society, being able to solve problems is a valuable skill to develop. We won’t always be rewarded for this, but the more often and skillfully we generate solutions, the higher the likelihood that we’ll be rewarded.
Serve as a Resource and Inspiration for Others
When a craftsperson becomes a go-to resource in the community of their given craft, they have reached the professional stage. People often become the go-to resource because of their undeniable value and skill.
Furthermore, when a professional craftsperson inspires others, they have reached a level in their craft beyond the beginning and intermediate stages. Subjectively speaking, it feels like they can make their particular craft sing in whatever way they wish.
Their work appears effortless and the results are awe-inspiring. These two adjectives mark someone who has come into their own in their craft.
A related, but often overlooked, aspect of inspiration is originality. When they’re a go-to resource and inspiration, it’s likely that they’ve innovated and advanced their craft in at least one key way. Innovation is likely the most telling and concrete way to determine a professional craftsperson in their element.
To be clear, originality doesn’t have to be what we think of. An example of stereotypical originality is Van Gogh. His style of art and way of viewing the world was distinct from many artists of the time and those who have come since.
Anyone familiar with the history surrounding his work would have a hard time refuting this statement. Without a doubt, many of us would consider his work original, groundbreaking, and inspiring. I’ve been hard pressed to find anyone who would call his work unoriginal.
Van Gogh is an exception. There is a myriad of examples of originality that aren’t groundbreaking. Take one of my favorite bloggers Scott Young. His idea of documenting his learning processes and how we can do it better isn’t unique.
Throughout history there have been people who have done this type of work in one form or another; however, he tells us a story of learning with his unique perspective and experiences in an informational, yet entertaining format.
I’d argue his body of work is original, even if the underlying ideas aren’t. He has successfully taken common experiences and packaged them in a novel way.
To do this, he doesn’t have to have world-class ability in any particular thing he does, although it appears he does. Instead, he simply has to take elements that work and put them together in a way that most people haven’t seen before.
Most importantly, since his writing is relatable and actionable, he solves two key problems, people looking for better ways to learn, and people looking to be entertained/inspired. He inspires others to take action and gives them the resources they need to do so.
Creatives who adopt a craftsman’s perspective not only stand to improve the quality of their work but also their joy. When we approach a new skill or pursuit and become good at it, we have a strong sense of purpose and fulfillment. Fulfillment should be the goal for all humans regardless of their occupation.
When we perform fulfilling work we tend to do it better. In turn, the work is of a higher quality and benefits the people it impacts that much more. As creatives, we should challenge ourselves to approach our work with the same level of rigor as a mathematician, organizer, or tradesperson. Our work is too important to do otherwise.
Creative endeavors are just as vital to the world as those based in science and manufacturing. They create a reason for us to live, challenge our assumptions, and allow us to imagine new possibilities.