Posts Tagged ‘The Craftsman’

Some of the Many Things I Learned from Richard Sennett’s THE CRAFTSMAN

October 26, 2009

sennettbookIt’s been awhile since I’ve been able to post. 2 reasons. Reason #1: Life. Reason #2: The Craftsman is a freaking dense 300-page book.

It’s dense, but it’s a rewarding density. Sennett is no marketing guru or new media Johnny-come-lately, but a real deal philosopher. He name drops fellow American pragmatist Richard Rorty and is probably a little too fond of his cello playing. So don’t walk into this thing expecting charts, slick lingo, or brisk case studies.

But walk into this thing you should (and expect to stay awhile). It is very much a work book. And a foundation shaking one, one of those special works which fundamentally changes you (like Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, and who also reviewed this book for the NYT). It is a game-changer, workspeak Sennett would never use.

Sennett’s central premise is how “making is thinking.” He uses craftwork, or the work you do with your hands, as a means of thinking about all work. It’s an awesome premise, brilliantly utilized. Sennett will start by talking about very concrete things like chopping vegetables or crafting a violin, and then extrapolate from these common or highly technical activities larger themes of universal applicability that both deepens and informs what it means to do a job.

This book makes you like work. It makes want to work better.

Comprehensive assessment of this book is impossible. There are numerous digressions into areas wide-ranging and esoteric (from Julia Childs’ recipe writing to Wittgenstein’s construction project). But if you’re able to hang onto the central conceit how making is thinking, how doing physical manual labor allows us a very effective means to think and improve on all kinds of work, you’ll acquire new sensitivities to and appreciations of worklife. Here were a few of the many neat ideas…

  • The Anti-Social Expert If you have (or are) one of these types in your work organization, it means something’s very wrong with your organization. Like violin craftsman Stradivardi who kept all the secrets to his craft to himself such that no one can reproduce his instruments, working in a structure that allows this isolation leads to downfall of this organization. The goal is to connect these experts to the non-experts, to make the experts accountable to the non-experts by making their skills understandable to all. By making the skills of your best understandable to the entire organization, it enables an overall understanding of quality and the means to achieve it.
  • The Hand: Unequal Strengths Working Together Look at your hand and how the pinky would have no chance in the ring with the thumb, or even forefinger. But that’s not to say it has nothing to contribute. From thinking about the hand’s coordination, Sennett draws larger insights on how to coordinate work among all such situations of unequal strengths. For example, like learning how shape a chord on a guitar, it happens best when practiced together.
  • Begin with Cleaving a Grain of Boiled Rice How should you approach any new task? What is the true demonstration of skill? You take the cue from master Chinese chefs who espouse the virtue of minimum force. Not by going all out, but by establishing a baseline of the minimum necessary power to get the job done. Less mess, more precision. It is also a means of self-government. Self-control is yet another form of mental understanding that emerges from hand skills.

There’s a lot more here. Maybe I’ll do another post.

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