Out of the wreckage?

Kintsugi – Japanese ceramic repair using gold

I am finding this a slightly surreal time as we watch on, helpless, with a combination of amusement, horror and fatalism a government heading towards an inevitable car crash and wonder what the collateral damage will be, not least to us and those around us.

On a more productive note, I think about what we might do to use the wreckage not to cobble together yet more clumsy approaches but something more akin to Kintsugi, the art of bringing the pieces back together in a form that has beauty in its own right.

We can be certain that we will have wreckage to work with – a combination of complex, extended infrastructures highly vulnerable to climate change, a wilfully blind corporate and  financial system that insists on magical perpetual growth, and pliable governments that are so hopelessly enmeshed with the way it works that effective leadership is missing. I think we are very unlikely to change that before we must deal with the consequences. That said, we have all the pieces – from a history of resilience, an abundance of talent, a local climate more forgiving than most (for a while), a generous culture and social ethic we often forget.

The Japanese use gold to repair ceramics – what might we use to repair our society? It’s a huge question, and I can only observe from my own, limited perspective but as that’s the only place I can start:…

  • We can learn from Artisans – those people who sit in a space between the inspiration of art and brute force of industry to produce goods and services with integrity.
  • They employ craft – they work with and shape what they do, whether people, or materials, with empathy and understanding of who, where and how they work. The cold, industrial word is sustainable. The more accurate word is love.
  • They have a deep understanding of “enough” and a loathing of scale for its own, selfish sake.
  • They understand the circular economy at a visceral more than theoretical level, and the cycle of grow, make, use, recycle.
  • They collaborate as much as compete. They are inherently curious, looking to find better rather than just more.
  • They speak the language of beauty more than capital.

This will not be some magical leap to a rustic idyll. Current ways of working will take decades to erode, but erode they will. We have arrived at a point where the most traded entities are not products and services, but the companies that provide them – sophisticated “cut and shut” operations where different failed entities are welded together to provide a shiny new offering with caveat emptor the philosophy. That approach has a very limited lifespan.

Like this blog though, we must start somewhere, and as we consider our careers and those we work for, thinking like an artisan is perhaps a beginning:

  • Whether a product, or a service, can you identify something discrete that you make where you can say “I made that” and a client can say “yes, you did, thankyou?”
  • Do you understand what you make well enough to take it apart and repair it, whether a balance sheet, a bureau or a boat?
  • How well do you understand the materials and tools you work with? Did you choose them, or have you been given them?
  • Do you work to somebody else’s specification, or create your own?
  • Who do you most meet with – other people who love what they do, or people agreeing next month’s goals?

These questions, and many others, reveal our autonomy in the direction of our life. HR refer to “compensation packages” for a reason – its what we get for sacrificing agency in our lives.

It’s not binary of course – most of us, me included, will have spent large chunks of our lives “working for the man” to pay mortgages and rent and raise families. That does not however mean we have to be blind to possibility. There is an artisan in all of us if we give it room to emerge.

I think it’s important for one overriding reason. We talk about being in a knowledge economy. Knowledge is data, and data is cold and can be parsed, automated, and manipulated. When it comes to knowledge, the future for most of us looks likely to be tending the machine. Craft however, the soul of the artisan, is different. It is alive, and intrinsic, and cannot be captured by automation. It is at the heart of relationships with each other and our environment that has a will of its own and will not be automated.

It is not that men are ill fed, but that they have no pleasure in the work by which they make their bread, and therefore look to wealth as the only means of pleasure.

It is not that men are pained by the scorn of the upper classes, but they cannot endure their own; for they feel that the kind of labour to which they are condemned is verily a degrading one, and makes them less than men.

Thomas Ruskin, Stones of Venice, published 1851.

Our lives will be remembered not for what we knew, but by what we did with what we learned. What we do next will matter.

As we go through what we are, I have no more idea than you as to what the future holds but learning how to exercise our humanity through our work seems a reasonable use of time whilst we find out. If the idea interests you, have a look at New Artisans. It’s an exploration, and perhaps an expedition, into what we might do next.

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