Craftsmanship: it seems like such an old-fashioned word. But the craftsman mindset is as relevant today as it ever was, and a powerful tool for creating a lasting contribution at work and in life.
Jiro and the Craft of Sushi
You might not expect much from a documentary about an 85-year-old Sushi chef, but, like both the man and his restaurant, the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi has far more to offer than appearances would suggest. Director David Gelb manages to tell the story of Sukiyabashi Jiro’s life and work (which are very nearly the same thing). More than anything else, Jiro’s story is one of a peculiar dedication to his craft that we don’t often see today. Although he’s spent his entire career refining his skills, he remains critical of his own work and alert for opportunities to improve or innovate. His two sons, both well into middle age, trained with him and share his passion.
Watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi made me think deeply about work, and how many of us approach it today. Much of the appeal of the film was in how alien Jiro’s viewpoint seems to modern eyes. It’s hard not to be critical, to say “Lighten up, Jiro. Enjoy your life a little!” But this is to miss the point. Jiro discovers enjoyment and meaning not in Sushi itself, but the way he creates it.
What is Craftsmanship?
Perhaps it’s a little sad that this term needs to be defined, but in a consumer culture, we may confuse well-made or handmade products with craftsmanship. In therapy terms, craftsmanship isn’t about the product but the process. In the case of Jiro, don’t be so dazzled by the beautiful plate of fish that you don’t see the chef’s hands creating it.
Craftsmanship is nearly always a highly specialized endeavor. Jiro isn’t a master chef at large, but a Sushi chef of one particular style of Sushi. Sports stars understand specificity as well. Very few athletic elites ever reach professional-level play in more than one sport. Bo Jackson is probably the most notable exception, but even the legendary Michael Jordan tried and failed to extend his excellence on the basketball court to the baseball diamond.
Another signature element of craftsmanship is that craft is about skills which may be hard to describe in words. That’s why craftsmanship isn’t taught in classrooms, but in the performance and refinement of the practice itself. Skill is gained slowly over years or decades by observing the master’s work and getting specific feedback in the moment. In the documentary, there’s a wonderful scene where an apprentice chef prepares a particular dish over and over again, dozens and then hundreds of times. He then shows it to the master, only to have his work rejected, and he goes back to square one. But in the end he learns to cook the dish to his master’s satisfaction.
Roadblocks to the Craftsman’s Way
I came away from Jiro Dreams of Sushi with a sense that this would be a better world if more people could understand and follow Jiro’s example. Certainly, I don’t mean that everyone should dedicate their lives to their work or needs to reach their own equivalent of Jiro’s three Michelin stars, but that we could be a little more focused and deliberate about what we’re doing professionally. However, as soon as I had the previous thought, I realized that craftsmanship is harder than ever to practice for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with craftsmanship itself.
Here’s a neologism to consider: “You’re so random.” It’s meant as a gentle barb for people who seem prone to say things that are surprising or out-of-context. Yet, life is becoming more random as we speak. We’re moving away from reading books on specific topics with chapters laid out in a logical order, in favor of websites and news aggregators with ‘feeds’ that collect many kinds of information in bite-sized chunks and slam them all together in a stack of on-screen ‘cards’. As much as I like the novelty of this presentation, sometimes I feel like my mind is skittering over it rather than digging in and understanding.
Academics are also suffering under the ‘you’re so random’ phenomenon. What we call ‘core curriculum’ is so broad that it’s hard to avoid a headlong rush from one topic to the next, with little time for true mastery. The fragmented school day further aggravates this problem, as does the fact that a student may study one subject under multiple instructors with potentially inconsistent or contradictory standards of performance.
In the workplace, many employees are asked to set yearly goals, which on the face of it, sounds like a fine idea. But, armed with the specifics of craftsmanship, we can recognize some of the reasons why so many people dread the goal-setting process. As I related above, craftsmanship is often easier to demonstrate than to document. Excellence is composed of many minute improvements over time rather than meeting a particular written objective. For professionals engaged in a craft, trying to goal-set can feel superfluous because it misses the reality of the practice. The other problem with yearly goals is that they’re rarely looked at outside the goal-setting meeting. Real goals would be referenced and evaluated frequently, just as masters evaluate and provide feedback to their apprentices. Unfortunately, many employees judge themselves successful when they get to the point where they no longer receive negative feedback. For many cube dwellers, no feedback is the best feedback imaginable. Yet, this forecloses the possibility of critique and improvement.
Professions are also subject to fads. The hunger for novelty, uniqueness and recognition drive many to gratuitous ‘innovation’ or to hop on the latest bandwagon. This was never more true than in my old profession, software development, where whole new languages and new software development environments and methodologies emerge, flourish, and die out in a scant few years. What’s lost in all the churn is the very real craft of building software, which is composed of habits of thinking that have endured over decades. In my own experience, I didn’t even understand there was a craft to programming until I was in graduate school, and learned about it slowly and painfully, with little support along the way.
Guilds are Back in Style
But, for all the factors arrayed against the development of craftsmanship, it’s reemerging in the strangest place: online gaming. While we may deride serious gamers as overweight man-children living in their parents’ basements, online gaming has almost all the aspects of craftsmanship. There are masters who are experts at the game, as well as newer apprentices who seek to master the game by learning the required skills through repeated performance and feedback. So it’s no accident that the online organizations that support masters and apprentices are called ‘guilds,’ just as real-life organizations were hundreds of years ago. Perhaps these games are so popular because modern life deprives us of opportunities for mastery in our working lives. Much has been written about ‘gamification’ of work or life in general, but perhaps it isn’t ‘gamification’ so much as ‘craft-ification.’
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