Becoming an Artisan

In talking with those who have what I think of as an artisinal attitude, there is a recurrent theme:

The work is the client.

Creativity may have a muse, but for the decorator painting our downstairs at the moment, it’s the work. It’s evident in the attention paid to preparation, or paint selection, and the use of fine brushes in areas of detail where others would use something more efficient and faster. It’s in the conversation about the experience of picking materials, and the distinction between the “paint gangs” and the artisans. The paint gangs are accountable to a boss, and work rates. The artisan is accountable to the work.

As we go through the changes we are experiencing, I find it an important distinction. The work will always be needed, even if the person paying for it – an organisation – disappears. When times get tough, the work has a place at the table.

When I look, I see artisans in many places I wouldn’t normally expect them, from call centres to the police. The thing that unifies them is the idea of the work being the client. It’s a powerful motivator, and far more so than a pat on the head and a bonus.

Alfie Kohn wrote a great book “punished by rewards” on the effect of hard targets and monetary incentives on teachers. In short, it destroys the intrinsic reward. The love of the work gets overriden by external performance stress.

The work, of course never goes away. The organisations that deliver it may disappear but the work still needs to be done. Artisans reduce their dependency on the middle man, and form their relationship with the work. In my own case, with the work on the house, it may have taken me longer to find the people I need, but I’m ok with that. I’m not sure how closely quality and efficiency are related on work that benefits from craft, and I don’t want people who paint to formula

Another thing I’ve noticed. Artisans talk to each other in a different way. It’s relaxed and non competitive. They have an interest in each others work, and again the work seems to have a presence in the conversation. Artisans help each other.

I think becoming an artisan is a choice we can make. We don’t have to wait for a “calling”, we can start by taking a different level of interest in the work we do. I think it’s a generative process, take a real interest in the work, and the artisinal starts to take shape. I wrote a few weeks ago about an experience with a call centre. when I found an artisan in the most unlikely of places. For most a boring job, for him a thing to do well.

There’s something about love. What we love tends to love us back, and that is true I believe of the work we do. If we look after the work, the work will look after us. Organisations are transient, work isn’t.

As we face the turmoil we do, our work (not the organisation) is our ally. Whatever we do, we can be an artisan. Nobody remembers the organisation, but they do remember you and the work you do.

Whatever you do, think and behave like an artisan. Love the work. The rest will follow.

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