the Curse of the Craftsman

portrait of 2009 Prince's Foundation New Orleans craft apprentices on steps of historic house

   I spent a fascinating week recently in New Orleans working with The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment (PFBE) which is spearheading a craft apprentice training program in cooperation with the Preservation Resource CenterDelgado Community CollegeOperation Comeback, the Louisiana Carpenters Union, their Regional Council Apprenticeship and Training Center, and other partners. Participants in the program (pictured above) were hand-selected from New Orleans’ carpenters, millworkers, metalworkers, plasterers, and masons. Ben Bolgar of the Prince’s Foundation asked me to make a few comments on Saturday before I left. The following, as best as I can recall, summarizes what I left them with:


   “These have been very noteworthy days for me, as are all the days I’ve ever spent working with the Prince’s Foundation. It’s obvious in what you’ve said while presenting your work just now that you’re all very excited about what you’re been doing this week. That’s wonderful. And you sound as if you’re inspired to become craftsmen rather than just workers. Excellent carpenters and fine millworkers instead of wood-butchers. Great masons, not brick-throwers. Outstanding metalworkers as opposed to metal-bangers. And superb plasterers instead of mud-sloppers. I’ve told you about the craftsmen around Seaside, Florida, who are now regional celebrities, for whom people will come from 500 miles to try to get them to do their work. But I’d be doing a disservice if I left without telling you about the dark underbelly of craftsmanship: the Craftsman’s Curse.

   But before I do, let me tell you about one lunch hour that changed my life. I was in architecture school at the time, and we had a program called “Lunchline” where students would brown-bag lunch and gather around one of the original speaker phones (a big wooden contraption with protruding electronics) and have a conversation with a prominent architect. I was in my last year of school at the time, and the architect that day was Michael Graves. Late in the conversation, a freshman asked a typical freshman question: “Mr. Graves, what’s the secret of success in architecture?” I was afraid Graves would blow him off or make a fool of him, but, always the gentleman, he did not. Instead, he took him seriously, and responded in four words that changed my life: “Extraordinary singleness of purpose.” Had he said “great natural talent,” “wealthy parents,” “political connections,” or even “good looks,” I’d have been out of luck, because I had none of those. But “extraordinary singleness of purpose”... I could decide to have that!!! Every American has that choice! And today, you have that choice. Excellence is something anyone can choose to do. But let me tell you what it’s going to cost you:

   It’s Saturday afternoon. What happens if you decide today to dedicate yourself to becoming a craftsman? What changes on Monday morning? Here’s what:

   In the eyes of your customers, nothing changes. Everybody says they believe in high quality and good customer service. Ever hear anybody say “we build sloppy crap really cheap?” I didn’t think so. So what is your commitment to quality worth to your customers? Nothing at all. You’re no different from the brick-throwers, wood-butchers, metal-bangers, and mud-sloppers in their eyes.

   But what changes for you? Because you’re committed to an extraordinary quality of work, everything changes. It’s going to take you longer to do the same amount of work, especially at the beginning, when you’re just beginning to learn. And so you’ll be making less money per hour than the brick-throwers, the wood-butchers, the metal-bangers, and the mud-sloppers. And this will continue for years. And it will seem like nobody cares... because you’re still an unknown.

   Every single day, everything about your life and everyone dear to you will be pulling on you, screaming at you to give up your crazy commitment to excellence. How can you be so committed to this when it consumes you so and makes you less money than those who don’t care? You owe it to your family and your friends, they’ll say, to give up this craziness and just make a normal living.

   But do you know what the real tragedy is? It’s those who are committed for a few years, and then give up. Because do you know what happens then? When you give up before the Tipping Point, then it’s like pumping one of those old hand-operated water pumps: if you quit before the water gets flowing, it all drains back to the bottom, and you’re no better off than those who don’t care. Matter of fact, you’re worse off, because the years you’ve spent pursuing excellence are now all for nothing. This, then, is the Craftsman’s Curse: you work, usually for years, in passionate pursuit of excellence, with no obvious benefits in sight. And if you let it go, then you’re worse off than those who never cared to begin with.

   But what about the Tipping Point? Have you ever tried to tip a 55-gallon drum full of water? It’s tremendous work to even get it off the ground... it takes everything you’ve got. But then, after a lot of straining and groaning, it suddenly gets easier and easier... just before the moment that it tips and goes everywhere. That’s the point where you become a regional celebrity, and an overnight success... many years in the making.

   And guess what happens then? The wood-butchers are still butchering wood. That’s the best they’ll ever be. The brick-throwers are still throwing bricks. That’s the best they’ll ever be. The metal-bangers are still banging metal. That’s the best they’ll ever be. And the mud-sloppers are still slopping mud. That’s the best they’ll ever be. But you’re different. You’re way different. People are now seeking you out from miles around, because they now know what you’ve known for years: you can build things that few other mortals can build. Your name spreads broadly... wider than you ever dreamed possible. And for every remaining day of your life, you’ll be way different, and people will respect you because of it like they’d never respect you had you not cared for all those invisible years.

   It’s obvious you guys have heart. A lot of heart. And you can’t do this without having a lot of heart. Extraordinary singleness of purpose requires a lot of heart... because otherwise, you’ll get beaten down and give up, somewhere in the middle, before you get to the Tipping Point. We could all fail to get there. But none of us have to fail to get there. It could happen to all of us, but it doesn’t have to happen to any of us. Every single one of us can choose to get to the Tipping Point someday.”


   ~Steve Mouzon


Legacy Comments:


Tuesday, November 10, 2009 - 04:21 PM

Anonymous

Steve

That is probably the best subject you could have decided on and

you said it very well. The tortoise and the hare, perserverance is

more important than anything else.

M L " Mike " Waller

Design/Builder, Debtor, --------- :-)


Tuesday, November 10, 2009 - 05:01 PM

Chad Cooper

Reading this speech got me excited... and I wasn't even there... and, you weren't addressing people with whom I same the same skill-set.  But, it certainly applies to me and anyone else who's decided to not just focus on money, company title, or the other things that commonly suggest success.  Several years back, I started this process... the one you describe above... and this past year has been tough at times.  I've had times where I've thought how nice it would be to work for a company doing whatever they asked of me, regardless of what I've learned to be most proper.  But, I've reminded myself of this "tipping point" you've mentioned... and, I really believe that once you've taken a steps, the farther you proceed the harder it gets to even consider veering off course, regardless of whatever pressures being faced.  I agree, it's a "curse"... because there are times when it SEEMS like it could be easier to just not care so much, to just make a living, to not sweat the details so much.  So, that's the curse... once you start the exploration, it's impossible to go back... even if you wish you could sometimes.  

Anyway... great post Steve.  Sorry for the blabbering... the point is, although this was spoken to an audience of builders/craftsmen, I felt like it was written to me.

Thanks,

Chad


Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - 07:30 AM

cooter ramsey

Steve,

As always, this is excellent! Thanks for the inspiration and reminder..

Cooter


Wednesday, November 11, 2009 - 02:44 PM

Stubborn Sandy Sorlien

Terrific, Steve. And a wonderful picture of the group.


Thursday, November 12, 2009 - 11:54 PM

John Anderson

More important than extraordinary singleness of purpose is the ability to be happy in your work in spite of the static and distraction.  A craftsman actually owns the thing that makes them happy.


Sunday, November 15, 2009 - 12:13 AM

Ricky Newcomer

Thank you for posting this, Steve...and your

commitment to excellence is consistently

obvious and inspiring as well.


Wednesday, December 2, 2009 - 09:08 PM

Robert Sharp

Steve,

I've forwarded the link for this speech to everyone I know that does work that I respect; most of them in fields other than design or construction.  I appreciate your willingness to express the level of commitment required to change and heal the world.


Monday, December 7, 2009 - 03:28 PM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks to everyone for the comments!


+911+

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