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Expertise Is an Outcome. Craft Is a Journey.

Julie Babb
Julie Babb

As we prepare for our upcoming quarterly offsite, which we call our “together,” we thought it would be fitting to take a moment to reflect on our theme from last quarter: Craft. What is it? Why is it so important?

To guide our exploration, we reflected on two works by experts in the field: A book called the  “The Craftsman” by sociologist Richard Sennett and Ira Glass’s famous interview on expertise, titled “The Gap.”

Both explore the meaning and process behind developing a craft, the former from a societal view (how craft developed and why it’s important on a macro scale) and the latter focused on the individual journey (what it takes to master your craft.)

The Evolution of Craft
Craftsmanship in the middle ages

Until the Middle Ages, most people existed solely in self-sustaining ways. Humans focused on food and safety above all else. But the agricultural revolution and the technological advances that followed created opportunity for individuals to specialize. Horses could pull plows better than people, but they needed shoes and harnesses—things that took years to learn how to make well. Thus, the Middle Ages brought us craftspeople (and plagues).

As technology has progressed, craft has evolved beyond analog practices like blacksmithing and sewing. Sennett defines craft as anything you dedicate yourself to over a period of time, whether it’s medicine, programming, or parenting.

According to Sennett, we humans have an innate desire to improve our skills. Limiting that desire cuts off our ability to learn, grow, and create. Creativity may drive innovation—it’s the aha! moment that sparks new ideas—but it’s rooted in deep knowledge and understanding, which are acquired by practicing craft.

(Left to Right: “Portrait of Olga” Picasso - 1923, “Woman in a Hat (Olga)” Picasso - 1935)
(Left to Right: “Portrait of Olga” Picasso - 1923, “Woman in a Hat (Olga)” Picasso - 1935)

The painting on the right appears to have less craftsmanship behind it. But Picasso and many art historians would argue otherwise. Picasso needed to learn how to create the painting on the left before he could conceive the one on the right.

The Personal Journey of Craft

These days, you can hop on the internet and learn how to do just about anything (shout out to YouTube). Havings unlimited opportunities to develop new crafts is a blessing and a curse. In order to develop your craft, you have to focus on the particular expertise it requires.

The gap between your taste and your skills

Ira Glass argues that expertise is achieved when your skill level meets your taste level. Spoiler, getting there is not easy. Malcolm Gladwell famously claimed it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. Those hours are your craft.

What does it take to become a craftsperson today? The same thing it always has: time, effort, focus and the continuous act of practice. Craft is the process of turning curiosity into expertise through doing. It’s not an outcome but a methodology for exploring anything you love to do.

Armed with this new understanding of the word, we set out to develop a framework for improving any craft.  


Practice Deliberate Curiosity

Approaching your work with curiosity opens up a world of depth and complexity you can’t reach by going through the motions. If you consider every task a learning opportunity, you allow continuous improvement and innovation—even if you’ve done something 100 times.

Craft is how we turn curiosity into expertise

Find Your Inspiration

Expanding your horizons doesn’t just make you more fun at parties. It’s a way of getting fresh insights, ideas, and experiences that build expertise. You can take classes or read books, or step out of your comfort zone: Try taking an improv class to improve your presentation skills.

Practice Empathy

Empathy is all about understanding different perspectives. Being attuned to a variety of experiences can give you a better understanding of your own work and new ways to expand your craft.

Embrace Autonomy

Craft is a personal endeavor. In order to continue to push boundaries in your work, you must be able to step away from the group and stand on your own.

Make It Safe to Fail

Try to see failure as part of the process. Because the truth is, you can’t avoid it. If you aren’t failing a little bit, you probably aren’t getting better.

Don’t Rush the Breakthrough Moment

At the risk of sounding like a contestant on The Bachelor, this is a journey. The single most important thing you must do is be persistent. Spending a week cramming on your craft won’t have nearly the same effect as putting in  a few minutes every day for a period of years. The breakthrough moment will come, but you can’t force it—and besides, it’s not the point.

How to develop your craft - focus on preserverance and dedication

Be Generous

By helping others learn, we learn more ourselves. Being generous with your craft can change your life. For example, Jenny Doan's DIY quilt tutorials transformed her business and helped revitalize her small rural town.

And Finally, Start Small

This may seem like a lot to take on, but remember, craft is not a race. And if it were, craft would be the tortoise. In today’s hyper-connected and competitive world, we often feel pressure to “catch up” and find shortcuts to success. Resist that urge! Starting small is a proven way to build good, sustainable habits.