One of our first blog posts was about craftsmen. This theme constantly comes back to us since Normalem is, fundamentally, the search for our identity and the world we want to build and cohabit. In that search, work is fundamental. For one reason or another, we are adult men who find ourselves dissatisfied with our jobs and professions, and the craftsman is a model who inspires solutions for such dissatisfaction.
For us, working must mean more than a paycheck and a way to sustain our families, and more than a means to move up the social ladder. It must be, in a way, one of the signs of our identity, and therefore, one of the pillars of meaning in our existence. However, most of the time our work has been stressful, boring, and confusing in its purpose. Frustrated, we thought it was a matter of finding our calling, that the problem was that we didn't do what we were passionate about. The solution, then, would be to follow our passion. But we failed to find that passion.
The craftsman invited us to think differently, to put our attention less on what we did, and more on how we did it. That our work can be passionate, generate community, and be a source of pride and personal respect happens partly because of the ethics with which they work. Passion and meaning arise after mastery, not before.
Brett and Kate McKay's blog post Measure Twice, Cut Once: Applying the Ethos of the Craftsman to Our Everyday Lives is an excellent synthesis of the craftsman's ethos and an invitation to imitate them, because, as they very well affirm, that ethic can guide practically all human activities. What would it mean to imitate that craftsman's ethics? It would mean doing things well for the pleasure of doing them well; thinking and measuring twice before executing the action; planning, but not too much; working with what you have, with the tools and materials you have; working patiently, slowly, and without worries; gradually developing the skill, through practice, and for that, you have to expose yourself to mistakes, stumbles and, above all, to the opinion of others. To dive deeper into these principles, check out their post (for which we are grateful) because it would be redundant to do so ourselves.
Now, the problem is that the contemporary world runs contrary to the craftsmen's ethics. To imitate the way they work you need two things: to be able to do things guided by the pleasure of doing them well, and concentration. However, the way we tend to organize our work, given our organizational culture and ambitions, blocks activity that is based on artisanal principles. For us, understanding this has been revealing, and so much so, that it has been one of the reasons to risk experimenting with a company of our own.
Let's start with the difficulty of working in pursuit of a job well done. To illustrate, let's imagine a computer programmer. Above his shoulder, we see the code he is writing. As it progresses, the code becomes chaotic, this makes him go back to it, to clean it, to correct it, then, a simpler and more elegant way to write it suddenly comes to him, so he does it. Then, he continues and comes up with a small variation to the interface, one that's outside the original plan. Not sure what to do he meditates on its implications. Before deciding, he walks to the coffee machine. He talks about it with a colleague, who tells him that it would actually be "very cool" for him to implement it, although it would take time. He returns to his computer, trying to move forward with the original plan, but he can't stop thinking about the new idea, he feels bad not developing it. He decides to do it, he's happy...
In this story, the workflow is a problem-solution sequence. The execution of a programming action puts you in a situation of new problems, which requires new solutions, which brings you new problems. These emerge not only from the results of the activity they also do so from the programmer's own imagination and creativity. It is in this flow that he finds engagement and pleasure with his work, and its peak is the contemplation of the completed work.
Our world often prevents this type of flow, and the cause, paradoxically, is the rational way in which we have tried to organize it. Or, more specifically, by the kind of rationality that has been used for it. This type of rationality has a characteristic: it is oriented towards the efficiency, to the point where they are synonyms. The rational thing to do is the efficient thing to do.
What is efficiency? We usually understand it as a property of the action. Efficient is an action capable of obtaining greater benefit, with less or equal effort, than another. Ordering a taxi through a couple of taps on a cell phone is more efficient than dialing a phone number and talking to an operator, just as a programmer who writes three programs investing sixty hours of work is more efficient than another who writes only one during the same time. Similarly, a company that can produce 100 units with twenty workers is more efficient than one that produces only 50. Thus, an organization is rational as it is more efficient.
To manage efficiency, it is important to measure it. In fact, without some measurement, it's hard to know what is efficient. Units of production and money are the two common measures of efficiency in organizations. For example, worker happiness is usually justified in terms of productivity and return on investment; whether it is worth improving customer service is usually decided on these two same criteria, and so on.
This is how things are in our times, where the rational thing to do is to demand of our programmer a determined number of tasks to be done in a certain amount of time, and that they be standardized measuring each activity. The problem is that when quantity is what is demanded, quality is discounted, and doing things really well becomes irrelevant.
Our programmer can write the same program ten times, but when he writes it for the fifth time the problem appears to him differently, his imagination projects new solutions, and it is in following them with autonomy where he feels engaged and finds pleasure. If not, it is a mechanical and monotonous endeavor. He is naturally motivated by creativity and improvement, by the desire to do well, which is inhibited if all that matters is how many he does and, even more so if to achieve it the small details must be left aside.
Our imagined programmer would be in trouble in many of today's organizations. He would be too slow, too heavy, too inefficient. As Richard Sennet has documented, in today's organizational culture, it seems that the ones who get promoted are those who establish a superficial link with their work, since this would allow them to let mistakes pass, and even better if they don't notice them at all. Sennet calls this the consultant's culture, one that demands the "corrosion of character."
Now, let's talk about concentration. This aspect will be easier to explain, both in why it is needed and how it is inhibited. In the scene described above, our programmer goes from the problem to the solution, engaged and lost in the flow of his work, thinking creatively and enjoying his activities. Now imagine that while he is doing so, a notification box tells him that an email has arrived, the subject of which is a colleague's birthday. In order not to open it, he must strive and repress itself, since the human and natural tendency is to pay attention. Soon after, another notification box appears, indicating a Slack message...
Let's imagine that he decides to open the browser and search for help with a solution that he is starting to imagine, but along the way, he finds advertising everywhere, calls for attention here and there. The effort not to be distracted is even greater, so he gives in. Thus, the path to that helping hand is not a single step, but twenty. When he finally got the required help, he was no longer thinking about the problem.
Our contemporary world is full of distractions, and, paradoxically, the internet and software development have contributed greatly to this. The constant distraction and multitasking reaction is typical of an animal in a state of survival, trying to hunt and not be hunted. Instead, creativity and innovation emerge from a rather contemplative, highly focused and concentrated state. It's hard to picture the first sapiens imagining a tool while being chased by a mammoth.
Of course, we do not mean by this that efficiency should never be considered when judging our actions. It certainly should, after all humans are finite beings. We don't have infinite resources of time and money to get things done. But when efficiency becomes the only criteria, we put very important things at risk, such as our own ability to find meaning.
And let's be clear, following the craftsman's ethic is not easy. We ourselves at Normalem, have found ourselves frequently anxious, acting without understanding what we do, and all for the sake of efficiency. The system is in us, lodged in the dark zones of our weaknesses and anxieties. In fact, it was pushed by efficiency that we made the first version of this website, even though our purpose was precisely to build a business guided by the craftsman ethics. The result was worse than a Microsoft product.
For this reason, in order not to forget it again, we dedicate one of our t-shirts to the craftsman, as a model to organize the form of our work, just as the bicycle is, for now, our model of good technology.