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
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.
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.
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.
- Google things you don’t know
- Always ask “why?”
- Be excited to learn
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.
- Seek out people who know things you don’t
- Have interests outside of work (like proudly indulging in pop culture and reading Reddit)
- Read, listen and think about science, news and art
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.
- Talk with, and listen to, people in your community
- Think out loud when working with other people
- Watch other people talk and do things
- Look at experiences through the customer lens
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.
- Create space by learning how to manage your time well
- Make decisions and act on them
- Don’t rely on others to tell you how to process
- Develop confidence-building skills
- Be brave enough to try something new and different
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.
- Learn through trial and error
- Be OK with saying “I don’t know”
- Own (really own) your failures
- Be open to feedback, even when it’s not positive
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.
- Practice perseverance
- Be dedicated to improvement
- Use focus to find a flow state
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.
- Teach and mentor people with less experience than you
- Offer to assist an expert
- Share what you know through social media or content creation
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.
- Make small, incremental changes to limit the consequences of failure
- Take things from messy to orderly
- Something small, such as trying out new words, can lead to big jumps down the line