Craftsmanship, or the Art of Taking Care

What do these two images have in common?

Yes, they both depict flowers. Good work, Sherlock. Yes, the one on the bottom shows CUPCAKES. Stop getting distracted! Yes, they are both beautiful… and now my point begins to bloom.

I find both these images to be wonderful examples of craftsmanship, which is wot bwings us togethah todaay. Earlier this morning, I found myself reminiscing about when J and I used to go rock climbing. (We’re on a hiatus, because awesome hobbies cost awesome amounts of money, and right now our money is being spent on improv classes. I’ll write about that hilarious disaster someday.) But anyway, I was mulling over what exactly it was that I miss so much. We climbed at a local gym, so it wasn’t the gorgeous views. I did love the physical activity, but we’re still training for a marathon. I adored how much trust it built between us (our lives were literally in each others’ hands while on belay), but – given that we share a marriage, a bed, and an embarrassingly intimate knowledge of each other’s hygiene habits, which could be used for blackmail at any moment – I think we’re already rife with trust.

So. What was it about climbing that nourished my soul? Suddenly, my coffee kicked in, and I found the word I wanted. It wasn’t “focus,” not quite. It wasn’t “commitment,” either… Ah-HA! (Hello, Dark Italian Roast!) My word was craftsmanship. The thing that exists at the nexus of beauty and attention and care.

When you climb, the knot you use to tie the safety rope to your harness is this one. It’s called a Figure 8. It’s my favorite knot, probably because it’s saved my life so many times, but I also find it strangely beautiful. It’s practical, reliable, and simple, and it’s a perfect example of craftsmanship.

I remember when I first learned this knot. I was an instructor-in-training at my university’s outdoor education center, and my boss Dave leaned over my shoulder to give instructions as I struggled to make the knot come right. “That’s it… make sure the tail of the rope follows the first curves exactly as you wind it back through… if they aren’t perfectly parallel, the knot will still work, but it won’t be quite as strong. And, when your life is on the line, you want to go for 100%.”

To me, that is the essence of craftsmanship. It’s doing something – anything – 100%. It’s the embodiment of your grandpa’s favorite saying: “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” It’s taking the time to put a little extra care into your efforts to elevate them from being tasks you have “finished” to creations you have “wrought.”

Non-climbing examples? Let’s start close to home. Craftsmanship is taking the extra five minutes to ensure you’ve evenly spaced all the words and pictures on your latest blog post. You’ll still make your point if that line of text wraps in a funny way, but it wouldn’t be as polished.

In the case of my flower riddle above, the carving is another perfect example. That wooden flower is part of a door. Really, a door only requires a few things: a solid form; perhaps some hinges. Why adorn it with carvings? Because of the belief that if a thing can be made more beautiful, it should be.

Similarly, (almost) anyone can make cupcakes. (Sorry, dear friend-who-shall-remain-nameless!) But very few people take the time to learn how to transform frosting into art the way the baker who created these cupcakes in the photo did. And really, what’s the point? Very little in life is more ephemeral than cupcakes – at least when I’m around to eat them – but someone still thought all that obvious effort was worthwhile. That person is practicing craftsmanship.

Whether you engage in it to protect your life and limb or to fully represent yourself through your creations, craftsmanship is one of the character traits that I regard most highly. Think about it! From work settings to the realm of parenting, when we see people putting thought and research and skill into the  thing they’re doing, we admire them. They are the ones who we respect; the one who get the best results.  And, I think, these people with their wealth of knowledge and passion for perfection make up a sort of library of human potential. And that’s why you frost the cupcakes with graceful little flourishes before taking a giant bite – because the world, somehow, has to be better for the love you put into that one tiny aspect of it.

Since I’ve been a bit heavy-handed here (I’m quite serious about how important craftsmanship is, especially when I think about future generations), I’ll offer up some expertly made comic relief from master craftsman Ron Swanson.

So, do you have examples of craftsmanship from your life? Please share!

P.S. I was planning to end with that question, but as I sit here outside a coffee shop, the universe has conspired to delight me. A teenage girl at the table next to me just taught her friend how to tie his shoes with a square knot. She learned it while sailing, she says, but then she told him that, if he uses it on his Chuck Taylors, they’ll stay tied better and look good to boot. Get it done, master shoe-tying girl… the care you just demonstrated really is the hope of the future.


20 responses to “Craftsmanship, or the Art of Taking Care

    • Oh, I LOVE that! I could never draw those images with pen and paper, let alone coffee and foam! I really want to investigate more into this: “He pointed me to two Japanese concepts, both of which hold that ‘many things are beautiful precisely because they are short-lived.'”

      Thanks for sharing!

  1. My cupcakes are definitely not works of art. I can’t decorate cakes to save my life, even though I took a few lessons. There is something really cool, though, about seeing finished works, whether it’s food, furniture, knots, or whatever, that are truly masterpieces of whatever craft it is. You know the creator really cared, really took the time to make it as perfect as possible.

    • I’d love to take a class on that. I’ve stopped attempting to even write “Happy Birthday SO-and-SO” on cakes, because I make them look so utterly forlorn.

      Luckily we don’t all have to be master craftsmen at every trade!

    • Oh, dear. If only you’d had a laser pointer or something you could have flashed in his eyes to shake him up a bit. I suppose you could have just straight-up flashed him, no technology needed?

  2. Making the extra bit of effort to elevate a thing from “okay” to “incredible” is indeed a gift every person can offer to the world around them. You illustrate this point beautifully.

  3. I can still hear my grandfather saying, “When you do a job, big or small, do it right or not at all.” I can’t say whether it was the rhyme or reasoning or both that etched this working class maxim in my mind.

    In 1886, Collis Potter Huntington founded Newport News Shipbuilding on the proposition:
    “We shall build good ships here; at a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always good ships.” For me this was the essence of craftsmanship.

    And for ten years I built and overhauled aircraft carriers and submarines. With every “job” (I don’t like that word much) I experienced moments of self-actualization over and over again. I loved that feeling, but I don’t know if for the right reasons. I was in love with the intrinsic prestige of being a shipbuilder and still craftsmanship was quintessential to my work.

    I don’t doubt myself to be a craftsman. I will never let anyone question or challenge that. However, does prestige undermine the intention of craftsmanship? Or is it a reward of craftsmanship?

    • Oh, that’s a fascinating question. For me personally, though, the answer is straight forward. Of course the prestige doesn’t undermine the intention. I think there are many extremely successful musicians, for example, who continue to pour all their heart and skill into their work and performances, and they’re not one jot less committed to craftsmanship because they made it big with an audience that appreciated their efforts.

      On the reverse side, while prestige can be one reward, but it isn’t necessary to feel satisfaction. I think the end product itself would be reward enough, whether that dedication you had invested meant your small business became successful or your art was more beautiful or your homemade jam simply tasted better – that’s all you’d need to know it was worth it.

      I’m interested in looking at craftsmanship as applied to love and relationships. Short affairs may thrive on spontaneity, but I think strong partnerships endure because of the care paid to them – in the same way wood shines brighter over time if you keep applying wax to it in loving little motions.

  4. I will be on hot standby (shipbuilder lingo) for the “craftsmanship as applied to love and relationships” entry.

    I have recently been mulling over the relationship/distinctions of how “romance, seduction, and manipulation” are situated in relationships.

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