Our most important challenge this year is to discover what we would like to do and then dedicate our lives to excelling at our chosen craft, whether we pursue it professionally or personally. We all have a ‘purpose in life’, but here’s the thing about purpose – it’s not always about career or money. Sometimes our purpose is simply to love another human being, raise a child, devote our lives to the pursuit of knowledge, or learn how to draw, write or sculpt for our own pleasure. In this context, we define the art of mastering a craft as the development of a specific skill set and becoming a true artisan.
We need to find the craft, career, calling or contribution that best expresses who we are, the one that fulfils us at a deeper level, and allows us to give something back to the Earth. Through educating ourselves, exploring possibilities and gaining experience in our field of expertise, we make an investment in the self and we nurture our growth and development as a person, and as a member of our global community.
There’s a scene I love in the 2003 film The Last Samurai. U.S. Army captain Nathan Algren is captured by a samurai tribe and their charismatic leader Katsumoto. While under guard, he explores the village and carefully observes the samurai.
Cue the scene’s voice-over:
“I continue to live among these unusual people … Everyone is polite. Everyone smiles and bows. But beneath their courtesy, I detect a deep reservoir of feeling. They are an intriguing people. From the moment they wake, they devote themselves to the perfection of whatever they pursue. I have never seen such discipline.”
The scenes that unfold as these words are spoken captures, for me, the essence of what it truly means to master a craft.
Of course, we live in different times and in a very different world to that of a samurai villager, but this scene offers a valuable lesson about developing and honing a skill over time; a master craft that benefits the community and the Earth.
The samurai express a quiet dignity while engaged in activities requiring the full concentration and effort of body, mind and soul, and real devotion to the mastering of a valuable craft.
They display a peace and simplicity as they go about their daily activities, whether raising chickens, practising archery, mastering the sword, tending a vegetable garden or performing a tea ceremony.
They possess real substance to their souls and personalities and a true purpose to their daily lives – they are not just empty shells going through the motions, spending their days trapped in a cycle of endless consumption.
If we spend our lives buying things we don’t need, we are squandering our creative energy on worthless pursuits. If we are bored, uninspired, or believe we don’t have anything of value to offer the world, we need to wake up.
We don’t need more stuff – we need something worthwhile to do with our time.
An excerpt from Jon Gordon’s ‘The Carpenter’
The following paragraphs from The Carpenter epitomise, for me, the need to slow down, and create with mindfulness, with a sense of quality, value and true purpose.
“A carpenter builds things. A craftsman creates a work of art. While most people approach their work with the mindset that they just want to get it done, craftsmen are more concerned with who they are becoming and what they are creating rather than how fast they finish it. After all, it’s no use finishing something if it’s not a work of art. The world is filled with those who get things done the fastest and the cheapest, but it needs more artists, craftsmen, and craftswomen.
“…I knew I would be a craftsman even though the costs were greater. The wood was more expensive; the work required more energy, focus, and effort; the process was filled with more sweat and failure; and the years and tears it took to master my craft were greater, but it was the only way … when I fall in love with the process, I will love what the process creates.
“Everyone can be a craftsman or craftswoman but not everyone is willing to become one … I find that everyone wants to do what the great ones do but very few are willing to do what they did to become great. Too many want five minutes of fame but they don’t want to spend the thousands of hours it takes to master their craft. When I meet young carpenters they ask me how and why I am in such demand. They think I became an overnight success. But I tell them, there’s no such thing as an overnight success.
“The way to success is the way of the craftsman, where you work really hard for years. You show up every day. You do the work. You see yourself as an artist dedicated to your craft with a desire to get better every day. You put your heart and soul into your work as you strive for excellence. You desire to create perfection, knowing you’ll never truly achieve it but hoping to get close to it. You try new things. You fail. You improve. You grow. You face countless challenges and tons of rejection that make you doubt yourself and cause you to want to quit. But you don’t. You keep working hard, stay positive, and persevere through it all with resilience, determination, and a lot of hope and faith.”
It takes years to master a craft, and it takes years to craft a life.
The art of mastering a craft
Make a decision: One interest or a suite of complementary skills may stand out for you. Decide exactly what it is you want to devote your life to mastering.
Do what you love: If you love what you do, it will be easier for you to stay the course. It’s difficult to stay focused on something you don’t actually like doing.
Learn the required core skills and techniques: Develop your skill set. For example, an artist needs to learn individual elements and principles of art and design including line, tone, texture, scale, contrast, shadow and perspective before drawing something.
Focus: Become fully engaged and immersed in your craft. Live it and breathe it. Eliminate from your consciousness and environment anything not directly related to your craft.
Practise regularly: Repetition gets results. Our efforts must be consistent. Set aside time each day to work on your craft. Even one hour a day takes you closer down that road to excellence.
Embrace failure: Be prepared to fail miserably before you get better. You will be mediocre, even bad at first, but you will eventually excel at your craft. Mistakes help us to recognise our weaknesses and indicate where we need additional training. Turn your weaknesses into strengths.
Process, not product: Trust in what you are doing. The road is the reward.
You must be in it for the long haul: It takes years of practise, discipline and focus to master a craft. Keep going even when you want to quit. It’s natural to turn away from what is painful or difficult, yet this is where our greatest progress can emerge. If you burst through that metaphorical pain threshold, you will achieve great things. Push yourself past where you think you cannot go.
Discipline: If you make the commitment to practise for one hour a day on your craft, then do it. Every. Day.
Avoid perfection: There is no such thing as perfection. Be a work-in-progress. Strive for continued excellence.
Learn throughout life: We must continually grow and learn. Education is the greatest gift. None of us knows everything; or can know everything. Be humble and in awe of the great mystery that is life and the Earth.
Find some role models: Watch, listen and learn how others have mastered the craft you wish to master. Read their books and listen to their advice. There’s a reason why these people are great at what they do.
Be unique: Learn from those who have gone before but find your own style.
Keep a positive attitude: Learning and creating should be a joy. If it’s not a joy, find another craft.
Think outside the lines: If you’re getting nowhere, stop and do something else. One hour of focused attention is better than five hours of fiddling around. Sometimes we need to do something completely different to spark our creativity, allow us to grasp that idea just out of reach, or reignite our inspiration.
We buy things that break easily and cannot be repaired or cheap, mass-produced objects with no value other than making someone a profit. Things are rarely made with love, care and respect for the Earth. I would like to see a return to the master artisan and the lost art of true creativity, where our craft helps communities prosper, we make less stuff of higher quality and we make things to last.