What does it mean to master one's craft?

A 5 minute read written by Paul April 15, 2014


Let’s talk about craft

When I was going to university in Winnipeg, Manitoba, I did a number of jobs to pay my way. By far my favourite was when I was an apprentice pipe organ builder for 2 years. Yup. I tore apart and rebuilt pipe organs, interspersed with quite a bit of work on pianos. My mentor was a third generation piano repairman; his father was one of the top piano techs in Calgary, and his grandfather did the same. His name was James Musselwhite, and he’s now an infamous piano builder in Toronto, if you saw the public outdoor piano project in 2013, that was all him.

While I was working with James, my favourite and most significant project was the rebuild of Maestro Bramwell Tovey’s baby grand piano. I had the responsibility of the satin finish. James and I had built our own shop and we’d developed a lacquer spray booth where we could do complete refinishing jobs with just the two of us. A satin finish is a long and precise process. Lacquer is sprayed on, and then a special brush made of steel wool is dragged through the lacquer while it’s still soft to create irregularities. All those ridges are then wet sanded down, and the process is repeated.

Wet sanding means working with small amounts of soapy water as a lubricant, fine sandpaper, and a toothbrush used to clean the sandpaper every few minutes so it doesn’t clog with lacquer. You move slowly across the entire exterior of the piano, drying the soapy water so that it doesn’t leave marks in the lacquer. If you look in the dictionary under the word painstaking, there is an etching of me wet sanding a baby grand piano. I spent about a week for each coat of lacquer.

The end results were exceptional. A satin finish has a smooth finish that refracts rather than reflects light, so it appears to glow black. The slow wet sanding leaves a surface with no gloss and no irregularities.

Now I’m not a master at wet sanding. Please do not make any furniture finishing requests of me. However I did give every bit of my attention to the task and I laboured at a low hourly rate until my mentor and I were both satisfied with the job.

But few things I’ve experienced in my work life compared to the day that that piano was fully assembled, polished and waiting to be picked up for delivery. It was a beautiful instrument and every tedious hour of work I put into it seemed worthwhile at that moment.

Moving from great to mastery

One of our core values at Yellow Pencil is that We Master Our Craft. My experience wet sanding a piano taught me a lot about hard work, about getting things right, about the absolute pleasure of a job done perfectly, and about what “done” looks like. However, a job well done is not mastery of craft. Mastery of craft is something different from plain old great work or liberally applied elbow grease. Most of us can achieve great work if we’re willing to invest the time. Sometimes great work happens by accident or through many repetitions. Sometimes it happens through collaboration or through great planning. But being a master of one’s craft is something else entirely.

Being a master of a craft has less to do with the end product and more to do with the process. For me, a master of their craft:

  • makes the work look effortless to an onlooker,

  • can respond to problems and blockers and still achieve the desired end state,

  • can speak clearly to the outcomes before the project starts but always adapts to fit the true need of the work,

  • has developed unique tools and processes to improve work efficiency,

  • is well accustomed to everyday patterns and routines - an apprentice may find it tedious or boring, but a master sees routine as the patient process that produces great work.

But most of all, I think that a master of a craft is known for their customers. You don’t go to the master when you want something predictable or that you can buy off the shelf. You go to a master when you want predictable results on an unpredictable task, when you want something that is unique but that has the same qualities as something that has been made a thousand times before.

What does mastery mean in the digital space?

Since we have “We Master Our Craft” as a core value at Yellow Pencil, we do a lot of thinking about what the digital/online customer would come to a master for. What are the qualities that a customer is seeking from their digital agency? When is that agency considered a master, or can only individuals within an agency reach that level?

We think that a digital agency who has truly mastered their craft (we’re not there yet, but we’re always working on it) spends less time talking about tools and techniques, and more time talking about outcomes and the customer experience.

We’ve come up with a list of qualities that we are aiming for that define our customer, not us. Why would someone hire us? Here’s what we hope our customers say about us, and even if we don’t achieve these every day and on every project, we’re aiming for this as our customer experience.

Our customer should be able to say:

  1. I get better at web every year through better tools, better skills, and better measurement.

  2. I’ve got a plan for the future. I know what my audience needs and I have a plan to deliver it to them.

  3. I’m as good as anybody in my league at digital communications and service delivery. Also I know who is in my league.

  4. I trust my agency and believe that they treat me honestly. I think of them as part of my team.

  5. I’m using the most appropriate product/platform for my organization at this time and I understand the roadmap for my platform.

  6. When I have a question I go to my agency first: they usually have relevant answers through patterns, libraries, or solutions.

  7. I know my web infrastructure is secure and highly available, and that my web channel is ready for the next generation of technology that my customers will use to access my information.

This is the customer experience we have built our practice around. As we master our craft, we intend to be known for our customers, not for our techniques. What is it that they are achieving? What is it that they can do because of our work?

What’s on your list?

What else do you think should be on this list? What are the other qualities of the customer who would hire a digital craftmaster?

I’d love to hear your stories. In this industry we all spend a lot of time focused on the sandpaper, or our specific techniques. But our goal should always be to transcend the everyday activities to truly engage with a customer and create something truly unique and useful for them.