The Art of Craftsmanship

The following is a presentation I gave to the Product Design Association of Utah at LunchUX on January 19, 2016.

Several months ago, I transitioned from my job in a management position, as a Director of User Experience, back to a designer. In the first few weeks of working hour after hour at a desk, without any meetings or interruptions, I found my mind restless and myself fidgeting. In my former role, I had developed some bad habits to deal with the frequent meetings and constant shifts in direction that came with being in management. They weren't habits that would let me do my best work as a designer and craftsman. I became mindful of my impulsive thoughts and nervousness and started purposefully correcting my habits to be able to regain focus and the clarity needed to create my best work, day in and day out. I collected ideas that helped me do my best work and identified things that distracted me.

The following slide deck includes some of the techniques I have used to improve my skills and craftsmanship. The story I've used to illustrate the path from apprentice to craftsman is an artist who inspires me, my brother Colt Bowden, and his journey in learning the art of sign painting.

A craftsman, sometimes called an artisan, is a skilled worker who practices a handicraft or trade, and is often associated with a guild.

Some of the brilliant inventors and inspiring artists from our history, both past and present – people like Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso or even Steve Jobs, people who all stand out as pioneers in their field and masters of their craft – we often learn that these “Master Craftsmen” went through a period of intense training before completing their great works. This period of time, referred to as the “Apprenticeship Phase,” typically lasted anywhere from five to ten years.

Is this an outdated concept?

There are still some careers that use this apprentice to master model, but most of us graduate college and look for a job that reinforces our passions or greatest areas of interest. We’re also focused on a social media driven “right now” culture. Learning to master a trade in 5 to 10 years sounds too corporate, too long, especially when we might change our career or job before than.

We don’t usually think about our career as a journey towards becoming a craftsman, but we can learn a lot from the apprentice to master model, especially in learning how to master a craft such as UX.

The goal of the apprenticeship is to learn how to change your mind. I don’t mean change your opinion or persuade you to believe something, but change how your mind works and learns.

Mindfully practicing a skill will change your brain’s ability to learn. 

The frontal cortex actually grows and changes when you force yourself to focus on learning difficult skills. Each time you learn a new skill, your brain becomes stronger and more efficient at learning and figuring out complex tasks.

The more you practice learning and using these skills, it becomes easier and enjoyable. You don’t have to think through every decision, and you can achieve a state of working called Flow.

The thing about mastering new skills and rewiring your brain, is that it isn’t easy. It’s tedious.

You can’t short circuit this process. You are rewiring your brain to learn something new. 3 hours of focused practice is going to be much more effective than 8 hours of diffused concentration. You have to focus on one skill at a time and avoid multitasking. Interrupting your focus by reaching for a “right now” device will make it take much longer or impossible to learn a new skill.

Learn what success looks like

Observe success closely at your workplace, in your field, your peers, your competitors. What does success look like? What is the difference between what you are doing and what is successful? What do you need to practice getting good at? What are the rules of your craft? Why do these rules exist? Make a list, pick one or two things to work on at a time and practice them over and over until you get really good at doing them.

It’s important though to mute yourself while you’re learning what success looks like. If you are doing things to get recognized, impress people, or prove yourself, you’re not learning from those around you. If you’re worrying about “Am I succeeding? Am I being appreciated? Am I in the right position? - you’re going to end up feeling frustrated and stuck. 

At some point in your mastery of a craft, you will need to get approval from the gatekeepers of the craft. In order to be taken seriously, you are going to need to show them your competency. This is why is important to be mindful of what success looks like so that you are deliberately practicing the craft successfully.

Find a gatekeeper. These are the people who hold the keys to the kingdom, and every domain has at least one. Find someone who is connected to the people you want to know, and be strategic in reaching out, tenacious in staying in touch, and intentional in demonstrating your competency.

Learn one skill and start building a foundation

Practice. Our brains are really good at mirroring and imitating others. We are primed for this kind of learning. When you’re learning a new skill, closely watch the Masters and imitate them as closely as possible. Start with one skill and develop the power of concentration. Multitasking is the death of mastery.

If you stop focusing on getting credit for your work, and focus on the work, there will always be a path forward. Always look at your career journey as an apprenticeship. You will stop searching for the perfect job, and instead start identifying perfect opportunities to build valuable skills and engage in meaningful practice.

As you get really good at practicing and honing the skill of deep concentration and focus, your mind is going to have space to start thinking about what you’re doing and providing some self criticism and guidance. You’ll start to self correct your actions, and that’s when you’ll find mastery of a skill.

Quiet the noise, fight through the tedium. Produce.

How often do you stop at a traffic light, pick up your phone, and mindlessly flip through your social media or email? Stop the habit of checking your phones, email, social media. Force yourself to stop filling in empty spaces. Stop needing to be in meetings with people to feel worthwhile. Stop needing ‘likes’ and comments to fill your mind. 

These all have one thing in common. Dopamine. It’s a neurotransmitter that fills the frontal cortex with pleasure and happiness. The frontal cortex is also the habit forming part of the brain. 

In practicing a skill in the initial stages, something happens neurologically to the brain that is important for you to understand. When you start something new, a large number of neurons in the frontal cortex (the higher, more conscious command area of the brain) are recruited and become active, helping you in the learning process. The brain has to deal with a large amount of new information, and this would be stressful and overwhelming if only a limited part of the brain were used to handle it. The frontal cortex even expands in size during this initial phase, as we focus hard on the task.

Let quiet fill the space. Let creativity and your craft fill that space. Train yourself to be still. Control what goes in there, and stop being controlled.

With that quietness, produce a large quantity of work. Create and create more.

Experiment

You’ve studied the masters, you’ve practiced and conquered new skills. Next, experiment different combinations. Break a few of the rules. Break away from mimicking and teach yourself to think on your own. Use your peers and the Gatekeepers as sources of feedback, but don't let their opinions stop you from continuing to experiment.

Lead Others

Build the community. Share your craft with others, but stay focused on the work. When you teach others a skill, you will realize there is more for you to learn.

If you’re worrying about “Am I succeeding? Am I being appreciated? Am I in the right position? - you’re going to end up feeling frustrated and stuck.  Don’t worry about what the world can offer you. Identify what you can offer to the world, and then find spaces to do that.

Sources

Jeff Goins, Designing Your Own Apprenticeship: How to Build a Team of Mentors

Jeff Goins, The Unfair Truth About How Creative People Really Succeed

Robert Greene, Mastery

Scotty Russell, http://perspective-collective.com/

Colt Bowden, http://coltbowden.com/