On Becoming A Craftsperson

01 December, 2018 - 6 min read

People always ask, “What do you want to do with your life?” Then, there is a follow-up question, “What are you good at?”

This second question has been on my mind lately for a period of time. But, before I address the second question, let's briefly cover how to answer the first question. Everyone is given a plain canvas in their lives, and it is up to them to create their masterpiece. Before you know what this masterpiece is going to be, you have to explore what options are available to you.

Exploring your masterpiece

We are novelty seeking primates, in permanent quest to find secrets & shortcuts to be absolutely & relatively better off. Exploring your masterpiece is not supposed to be easy. It can take several years, maybe a decade or two. If you want to be a doctor, go volunteer at a hospital. If you want to solve hunger, go visit a developing nation to experience what people go through living on dollar-a-day. Go take jobs in industries you think you may like. If you want to be an art illustrator, explore great artists and work for them. In the process, you will run into demoralizing events. You will experience less moral support from your friends and family asking you to stay put at one job. Income will not be sustainable during this exploratory period. You may think you wasted two years working at a job you didn't like. But fear not, these are all short-term hiccups. All these experimental experiences will help you narrow down your choices, avoid what you don’t like while you meet amazing people who are incredible at their own craft.

Parents and schools rely on “aptitude” which is an innate ability of a student. Relying on aptitude is a bit misleading because aptitude does not present all options available to you. Instead, present yourself with some hard questions like “How can you unite people around the world?” or “What are the consequences of climate change on nature?” Then seek answers to those questions. Meet people in the field who are working on answering those questions. Note, it will take years to articulate great questions. Craftsmen mold their aptitude with curiosity to answer the question, “What do you want to do with your life?”


Now the follow-up question, “What are you good at?” Einstein, Shakespeare, Adam Smith, Henry Ford, Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper and so many others were all great craftsmen and craftswomen. Do you think Einstein was gritting his teeth and diligently trying to solve great mysteries of our universe? Of course not! He was having fun. That is why he was so good.

You can only have fun when you deeply care about something you are building. Don't mix caring deeply with being passionate. Passion is a loosely used term these days that people mix with what they are capable of. If you are 5 feet tall and passionate about basketball, it does not mean your passion can lead you to be a pro basketball player. Know your competencies and when you are being delusional. Craftsmen know their limitations.

Craftsmen play a long game which is another key characteristic. The long game isn’t particularly notable and sometimes it is not even noticeable. It is boring. But when you choose to play the long game, the results can be extraordinary. The long game changes how you conduct your personal affairs. Doing what everyone else is doing pretty much ensures that you’re going to be average. But the longer you play the long game, the easier it is to play and the greater the rewards.

Words like being persistent, diligent and rigorous are all synonymous to being a great craftsperson because becoming great requires a lot of cognitive power. The incremental progress is viewed as a sign of doing great work. Every detail counts. No task is too small when done together. Collective effort is applauded over individualism. Be transparent. Show your efforts publicly and receive feedback real-time. Craftsperson works hard. But, remember to take breaks and indulge in other activities where they find their inspiration from. In order to become a good craftsperson, you have to stay curious and know the right questions to ask. These are all the characteristics of a great craftsperson.

Ira Glass summed it up perfectly on what it takes to go from good to great.

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through. — Ira Glass

Achieving mastery

Following are the 4 stages to achieving mastery:

  • Stage 1: understanding a skill intellectually by careful reading and studying the material.
  • Stage 2: performing the skillset with guidance by imitating. Remember that you may be unable to achieve perfect results but you should work to approximate it.
  • Stage 3: performing skillset without guidance, ability to step yourself into performing the skillset without referring the lesson. Should be able to remember the steps, approximately.
  • Stage 4: performing the movements without conscious awareness. The secret to achieving this stage depends on how much time you spend on stage 3 of practicing. Ability to perform a skillset without using the conscious thought to do so.