Consider the life of a blacksmith hundreds of years ago.
They would work on their craft of casting iron and molding metal into a sword, or some sort of tool to be used around the homestead or village. The hours were long, and the work was tiring, but upon inspecting the quality of the finished product in their hand the blacksmith would feel great satisfaction in a job well-done. The goal was clear, and the feedback immediate.
This is one of the most innate deep human needs - the feeling of purpose and full concentration on a task. As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi puts it:
“The best moments in our lives usually happen when our mind and body is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile”.
The sort of direct feedback from the manipulation of the external world that the blacksmith received from their work is unfortunately lacking in today’s society. Most people don’t have a “craft” they work on anymore - one filled with a clear objective and immediate feedback.
This has taken its toll on our overall well-being and life satisfaction. We lack the satisfaction of focusing our attention on a singular task, being bombarded by constant external (and internal) stimuli and are ambiguous regarding when the task is even complete.
Athletes have it a bit easier in this department. Goals and feedback are clearer; a goal scored, a heavy gym session, or winning a gold medal. Athletes have opportunities for deep work and cultivating their craft. Knowledge workers - or any worker for that matter - need to find ways to also apply this concept of craftmanship to their work.
Find your craft
Medieval quarry worker had a creed that they lived by:
“We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals”
No matter what you do, there is an opportunity to clarify your focus and develop a craft. The trick is to find out what that is for you. Quarry workers saw the cutting of stones as not mere mindless rock chopping but rather they saw how this was a part of the process of creating grand architecture and beautiful art.
Cal Newport describes “craft” as any activity where you apply skill to create something valuable. But this doesn’t only include creating physical objects. This could also mean high-value behaviours and actions.
Reflect on the work or job you do. What qualities or attributes do you consider to be your craft? If you’re an athlete it can be fairly straightforward - your sport. For others it might take some more reflection. A retail worker may consider their craft to be customer service. A marketer’s craft can be people management or branding. Journalists might consider writing as their craft. For me it’s understanding and coaching flow.
Identifying your craft gives you a sense of purpose and a task to work on. The retail worker can expand on their craft of customer service and envision providing the best possible guest experience. A noble pursuit which provides them the motivation to do their job well (and can eventually lead to a promotion or better opportunities). Each encounter with a customer then, is a chance to hone this craft.
The journalist on the other hand can seek out any opportunity to work on their craft of writing by taking courses, reading as much as possible, and writing daily. Each little task is a part of something bigger - from mere stones to cathedrals.
Flow can be found even in the most mundane activities. In Flow: the psychology of optimal experience Csikszentmihalyi introduces a story about factory workers that he and his team researched. Despite the unglamorous job, some individuals found opportunities to be fully engaged in deep work and find a sense of deep satisfaction. As Csikszentmihalyi explains, most of the workers hated their jobs except Joe.
Joe would make his work into a game. He would set clear goals like assembling a certain amount of pieces per hour, and then try and beat his score. “He loved to take on machinery that didn’t work, figure out what was wrong with it, and set it right again”.
In this way, Joe is living his life the way he wants too without expecting anyone else to help. He took control of his life by seeing his work as a craft with a sense of purpose.
Just like Joe, we too can make work into an activity that most resembles a game — more than the rest of life does. In a game, you know what you have to do. You operate with certain rules, with clear goals, and everything around you is reinforcing the game. When we learn to make work into a game we are set up for increased fulfillment and opportunities for flow. Just like an athlete, learn to play the game right.
Forget the context
Developing your craft ties into your overall mission (learn more how to develop one here). My own personal craft is the vehicle in which I actively pursue my mission of “increasing the amount of time people spend in flow”. My identity is not derived from my craft, but my craft is a vehicle to express my identity. I know who I am and don’t need my job to define that.
Focusing on the craft then, has many benefits. Regardless of the situation or context you may find an opportunity to fine tune and develop the craft. For example, COVID hit the sport industry pretty hard. This meant less clients and a reduction in opportunities for those working in the sport industry - myself included.
Upon reflection I realized that the context of where I do my craft should not matter. Whether it is working with athletes, or someone looking to develop their career I can still work on my mission of increasing the amount of time people spend in flow. With this approach I have expanded the meaning of my craft and added a new service catered towards other types of performers; namely those who are trying to find meaning in their careers. The craft is the same, the context can vary.
What do you value more - the craft or the context? This is a question you need to ask yourself. However, it is important to consider that the context is a variable that is often uncontrollable and volatile. It depends on many factors such as geographic location, job availability, and of course, devastating pandemics. Therefore, the more we focus on honing our craft we put the metaphorical ball in our hands and play the game we want to play. We cannot expect anyone to help us live; we must discover how to do it by ourselves.
Give up on the idea of purpose
If your attention is locked into cultivating a skill or task, the mind is free in the present moment (flow). When the mind is free in the moment the question of meaning doesn't arise. Without the thinking self in the way, we cultivate space to be fully immersed with what we are doing.
When does this happen for you? What particular activities or tasks quiet your mind? What kind of work do you find yourself coming back to again and again, even when it is difficult? This is where the treasure is hidden.
The way I see it is that there is nothing to find in the pursuit of purpose or meaning. The answer lies in letting go of this idea and bringing your attention to what is in front of you. Author Mark Manson has this to say about purpose:
“The people who struggle with the so-called “life purpose” question, always complain that they don’t know what to do. But the real problem is not that they don’t know what to do. It’s that they don’t know what to give up.”
Give up the idea of trying to look prestigious or important by going after jobs with a fancy title that doesn’t really fulfill our basic needs of autonomy, relatedness, and competence. These are fruitless pursuits. This amounts to just boasting. As philosopher-mechanic Matthew Crawford puts it:
“Boasting is what a boy does, who has no real effect in the world. But craftsmanship must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away.”
Instead of self-image actualization we want self-actualization - identify your craft and spend quality time developing it. The clear objectives, immediate feedback, and deep concentration it provides will get you a step closer to cultivating more flow in your life. Soon you will find yourself on the path to mastery and will thrive no matter the context.
It feels good to flow.
Deep Work & Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport
Flow: the psychology of optimal experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi