February 7, 2020

The spirit of craftsmanship

I am a craftsman. I am dedicated to perfecting the art and science of my craft, which I have chosen freely.

The Craftsman’s Creed, Josh Kaufman

Think of ‘craftsmanship’, and you may think of everything that our modern economy is not. We value speed and efficiency in the 21st century. But craftsmanship reminds you of a lone wolf working slowly fussing over little details.

However, can’t craftsmanship exist within modernity?

joints of cabinetry not aligned
Mis-alignment of cabinetry

The photo above shows part of the cabinetry in our kitchen. Its an L-shaped kitchen counter, and so the cupboards meet at 90°.

Does it really matter whether the vertical lines are aligned in a single line? No, not really. The kitchen counter wouldn’t collapse.

But I think it’s just a symptom of something that is lost in our society – the spirit of craftsmanship.

Definition of craftsmanship

By definition, craftsmanship is about the skill of making things.

However, Gaynor Strachan Chun argued in his article (Update: link no longer available) that “Craftsmanship—in the fullest sense of the word—is a way of life. It is about fully engaging our heads, hands, and hearts in our labors.”

Many of us don’t always get to work with our hands physically, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t imbue the spirit of craftsmanship into our work.

Why we need the spirit of craftsmanship

I’ve heard from friends working in corporate environments lamenting about the lack of pride in people’s work. They find it hard not to get affected by such an attitude. On one hand, they want to put in the effort to do things right and to do it well. But on the other hand, others around them are more interested in getting the job done with minimal effort.

The problem is, all you need is just to give yourself an excuse to cut an insignificant corner to start a history of cutting corners. Like how white-collar crimes often start with little ethical transgressions that eventually compound into criminal acts. All you need is to convince yourself that cutting some corners wouldn’t matter. Eventually, your quality of work will likely deteriorate.

Even if it’s some part of the work that wouldn’t be seen or known by others, we will know whether we’ve actually put in our best effort.

Steve Jobs summed up the importance of craftsmanship well:

“When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”

It’s actually more for us – the person doing the work. I think that our identities shouldn’t come from our work alone. But I think that our work expresses some aspects of who we are.

Are we people who actually care about what we are building? Are we people who actually care about the impact of the work that we do?

If we do, then we will put in the time and effort to do things well. Whether or not anybody sees.

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