We are craftspeople at heart.

Craft is hugely inefficient. Perhaps that’s where its power comes from.

Craft derives from a sense of purpose. Simply put, what we produce is part of us, and a part of the signature that identifies us, where we’ve been and where we’re headed. 

One of the defining characteristics of a craftsperson, like an artist, is that they are never really satisfied. They are always looking to do better. 

I see it in developers, start ups, and in what peple do outside of their routine jobs.

Good enough, a specification, and compliance is not language they use.

Beauty is. Creation is. Contribution is.

I think we are entering, if not already in, a time where we need to understand our own craft , own it and develop it. To identify what matters to us, that which brings us satisfaction and even joy, and which makes a positive difference to those around us. Something human.

The alternative – to do as we are instructed, to produce to a specification, to accept good enough as  the signature on our work is to put us in front of the digital combine harvester that is artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

Even when we get behind the alarmist hype, the likely reality is concerning enough. It is unlikely to replace huge swathes of jobs, but it probably will reshape them by encroaching on the content. When it comes to following a process, producing to specification, and doing so without breaks or pay, its a pretty compelling proposition. 

Many are predicting the sort of jobs it will replace. Carl Frey’s latest book, The Technology Trap, and Daniel Susskind’s World without Work offer expert insights. In short, the big threat is less replacement of our jobs, it is “encroachment” – the hollowing out of jobs through that which can be done algorithmically. 

Technology has two routes into our current jobs – to complement them by taking that which can be done by technology to give the job holder more scope to do what it cannot. And on the other hand to replace the job holder.

Every technology has followed a pattern of labour empowerment and labour replacement. The pattern seems to operate in cycles – historically since the 1800’s in periods of fifty years. Where we are now suggests that this cycle may get shorter, and that the balance between who is enabled and who is replaced will continue to tilt in favour of those who already have. 

What we don’t use, we lose. When we use calculators and spreadsheets, our facility with mental arithmetic fades. When we use spellcheck and autocorrect our facility with language lessens. When we use autofill, or Google, our capacity for working things out is subordinated to what an algorithm  has worked out. It’s fast, efficient, and erodes our originality. Our craft.

The big question is what happens if we take routine jobs, from sales to law and accountancy, and hollow out of them skills that have been expensively learned but are easily substituted by technology? We don’t know with any precision, but we should certainly pay attention.

The flip side of the coin is presented by Margaret Heffernan in “Uncharted”, a beautifully and passionately written book which challenges many of the assumptions we make about technology, and the way we have allowed our jobs to be developed.  She talks about the comparison between  technology and craft as follows:

“What we lose when we surrender so much of our time and attention to generic technology is not just the opportunity for personal experience, but the chance to create from it our own sense of the world, our place in it and what the future for both might be. The more time we spend visiting places that others have described, the more we follow the paths others have made, reading what we’re told, seeing what the algorithm recommends, listening to what crowd-sources admire and eating what’s already been photographed, tasted, marketed and measured, the less capacity we have to see what we didn’t expect, to hear what we weren’t told about or to ask questions that haven’t already been answered. We lose our own perspective and imagination and in this everyone is impoverished: ourselves and anyone who looks to us in vain for fresh insight or understanding. Artists try to make the most of their minds. In the quest for predictability, we risk making the least of ours”

I believe we are at an inflection point. Many of us earn our living by operating within a world of process and routine. We spent years getting the right qualifications in order to find our way into organisations where we can exercise our skills, and then work within those organisations to make those processes and routines ever more efficient and profitable. 

When we started the technology was not there, but it has emerged at enormous speed, and its capability is accelerating. 

What many of us put to one side is the stuff that makes us original – our creativity, imagination, time to immerse ourselves in subjects outside the mandated STEM, and which creates the big gap between what we can do that technology cannot. The things that make us original as humans.

The good news is that its never too late. We are not our jobs. We have alternatives. We may not be able to make the leap in one go, it can be high risk, and with rent and mortgages to pay, we have to take care. 

Do we want to be enabled, or replaced?

But we can start. Tiny steps. Making space to think, and reflect on what is really important to us, and give it a larger part in our lives. 

We need to start, because technology isn’t waiting for us.

From Prepack to Craft

Last week, I wrote about the idea of originising – becoming ourselves in an age when we feel under pressure to be someone else. 

Some great responses to that idea and other discussions with clients since then, got me thinking about what we do as we become ourselves – how do we contribute and find our way in the world that brings us both fulfilment and a living?

A big subject, but here’s where this last week took me. It was catalysed by, of all things, CoronaVirus, and in particular the variety of reactions to it.

We find ourselves living in a prepack age. We are always on, busy with making a living or worrying about what else is happening whilst we’re doing that.

We cope with the load through prepacks. Prepacked problems, prepacked solutions and prepacked opinions. In much the same way as we can feel pressured to fit in through what we do, we can feel pressured to fit in through how we think.

We absorb the opinions of “experts” we have not met and who understand little of our lives or circumstances. Experts are clever (which I guess is why they’re experts) but their offerings apply to the average of all the people who identify with that problem. The problem is often exacerbated by our tendency to believe them by default (Malcolm Gladwell talks elegantly about it – here’s a short summary)

They often contain great insight and wisdom, but in a raw form. If you consume it raw, it will most likely make you worse off.  You’re going to have to prepare what they offer so that it best works for the unique combination of molecules, environment and energy that you are.

Daniel Kahneman’s wonderful book “Thinking Fast and Slow” offers a good way of understanding this. He talks about our fast brain – the one that uses heuristics, biases and experience to rapidly categorise what we are experiencing and act accordingly. It’s hugely powerful, right most of the time and enables us to function. If we thought about everything we do, we wouldn’t be able to function. 

He also talks about our “slow” brain – the place of our attention and where we work things out, by considering, reflecting, wondering. Its equally powerful, but slower, and much more energy intensive. It is challenging – often to our received wisdom, or intuition. It’s hard, because we have to consider that we might be wrong. 

That’s good news and bad news. Good news, because when we are faced, as now, with multiple uncertainties we have a way of processing them. Bad news, because it’s hard work, energetically and emotionally. It slows us down (and if we’re approaching a sharp bend, maybe that’s no bad thing)

Back for a moment to CoronaVirus. All the indications are that this is going to be an extended issue. It seems likely to be a real inconvenience (more for some of us) but it will not be the end of the world. We may well have to behave differently, travel less, go to face to face meetings only if really essential (otherwise use video). It will force us to address our fast brain reactions, maybe even enough to start changing habits (fewer meetings, anyone?).

If however I look at the press and social media, the four horsemen are just around the corner, limbering up. The amount of fake news, fake product, and attention seeking is staggering. It can also divert our attention from other, more important but longer term pressures. Climate change isn’t going to take time off whilst we deal with CoronaVirus. Artificial Intelligence is not going to stop encroaching on how we work. We need balance.

We need our own place to stand.

Our lives are a work of art. Each one is an original. We shouldn’t let other people design them.

Collaboration and co-operation is at the centre of a good and effective life, but doing as we’re told, or shaping ourselves to other’s expectations will only in the end create a fake. A crude copy of what might have been. Whether it’s our lives, our careers, or our businesses, the same applies.

We have a choice. We can live easily in a prepack world, or we can do the work to craft our own. 

Heft

I find it an attractive word. With its origin in Anglo Saxon, it is normally used in terms of weight, or effort but there is another very specific use in terms of animals and people, hefted, which is used to describe the relationship between them and the land they live on. Hefted flocks are those that are so inextricably linked with the land they live on that they cannot be relocated.

In the past, up until the industrial revolution, most of us were hefted to where we were born. A function of generations past living on the same land, and the interdependent relationships that developed, we were woven into where we lived. The movement of people from economic necessity as the economy moved from agrarian to industrial broke that bond for most of us.

I came across the term in “The Shepherd’s Life” by James Rebanks. A beautifully written account of life in the Lake District through the eyes of one remarkable man, it opens with definitions of hefted, and goes on to recount how it defines his life and the society of which he is part.

What struck me most was perhaps what we have lost. When our families lost that hefted relationship with the land they lived on, what did they cling to? Rebanks doesn’t mention purpose or values right until the end of the book, and then only in terms of discovering the power of what was already present. The society of which he is part didn’t have to go looking for them, they were part of who they are, and released through their everyday work. I suspect the idea that you might have to define purpose or make a values statement would be ridiculous to them

So, in our modern day search for purpose and values, perhaps we are starting at the wrong end. Maybe we discover our purpose and values by what we don’t do as we work our way through life (and sometimes from what we do and later regret). Maybe we are born with purpose and have our values inculcated whilst very young, only to risk losing sight of them as we allow ourselves to be shaped by the expectations of others.

And equally, perhaps the same is true of the businesses we start. They are rarely started for money, but rather in an attempt to bring something into being. The primacy of money comes later, in the involvement of others and normally at a point when we have enough money from a degree of success to meet or reasonable needs. I’m not talking millions.

I suspect one definition of hell is the realisation of the impact on others of decisions we may have made in the pursuit of money we don’t really need.

When it comes to how we live and work, I suspect those who are happiest are hefted to something important, even if they cannot articulate precisely what it is. It shows up in how they live their lives and deal with others.