A lot of what I write in this thought-repository blog are representations of conversations I have with friends and the people I work with. One of my more recent exchanges with my friend, a neuroscientist, researcher, and developer involved a simple question around work fulfillment and what that entails. Naturally, the answer differs by profession so I was interested in hearing my friend's perspective coming from the field of science. You can find his answer in the full blog post on his site which I've also included in entirety below. He expands on craftsmanship and the rare successes that are both improbable and impactful that keep him going:
There are moments — not many, but enough — when the system speaks to me.
I used to tell people that they didn’t understand what engineering was all about. It’s not technical. A machine couldn’t do it, a fool with a manual couldn’t do it. It’s creative. It’s theoretical. It requires exactly that rhetorical butterfly of liberal arts education, critical thinking. It’s not just equations and facts.
All of this is true. But it’s argued from the assumption is that technical knowledge is somehow unworthy of acquisition, dedication, glorification — an assumption, familiar to anyone educated at a liberal arts college, which is all too attractive to directionless and restless students in the academy. Technical knowledge is inflexible; it’s unforgiving; it’s hard. Why learn facts and tools, which change, when you can learn how to learn them?
Everyone knows, with the infectiousness of a science half-fact that’s conveniently easy to believe, that we all forget most of what we learn in school anyway.
Yet the “learn how to learn” mantra doesn’t fully encompass the unrivaled joy of craft, of knowing, of flashes in the night that impart with their clarity and transience the unending pursuit of more. This is a form of knowledge to which I was resistant, a liberal arts-educated engineer’s insecurity, until I took my first job as a junior technical staffer in medical device development. Suddenly I wanted to learn every line of code, the make and model of every piece of hardware, the origins of every algorithm. I wanted to know the system.
When I say knowing, I mean what we think of as technical knowledge. I mean in-your-bones knowing the properties of every element in the periodic table, not just the framework you need to look them up later, because they start to take on personalities when you get familiar with them. I mean knowing, word for word, beat for beat, the “War is God” speech from Blood Meridian because it’s such an achievement in and of itself that no amount of abstract riffing about how it deconstructs the insatiable hunger of the Manifest Destiny can capture its immensity and power, because there’s no substitute for the real thing.
This is deep knowledge, intimate knowledge, this is knowing the way you know that your roommate is having a rough week. This is knowing your craft like you know family.
And that, precisely that, describes both edges of the sword. Craftsmanship, whether or not we want it to be so, carries with it the weight of singularity, of the individual wired into an uninterruptible harmony with the object of craft. There is no room, in the totalism of a craftsman’s consumption — craftsman, crafts man, no more and no less — for any other connection. In that moment, in that moment when the light flashes, there is nothing and no one else.
I rode my bike recently from Providence to Newport — about forty miles after you account for my various overshoots and wrong turns. I didn’t plan the trip. I woke up on what seemed likely to be the last sunny Saturday in the closing of the New England summer, scrawled some directions on a torn-out piece of notebook paper, turned off my phone, and went.
It was, as it sounds, a yuppie fantasy of a day off from work. Nature, in carefully-meted doses. Leisure packaged as striving. Motion, vastness, the full embrace of impulse. There was even an obvious visual metaphor of a Rubicon, the Mt. Hope Bridge, a narrow, steep, crowded, high-speed crossing onto Aquidneck. Bicycles are a craftsman’s vehicle of choice: visibly mechanical, eminently comprehensible, seating one.
When I arrived, surrounded by families, couples, and packs of students, I was bored almost immediately. Solitude has its ups and downs.
We all work on teams. There is no Simon without Garfunkel, no Watson without Crick and Franklin. There is no Werner Heisenberg without Wolfgang Pauli — or, to take a more recent, fictional interpretation, there is no Walt-as-Heisenberg without Jesse-as-Cap’n Cook.
Breaking Bad, which aired its finale this week, was in many ways about the tension between craftsmanship and connection. Walt, the main character and occasionally the hero, makes choices in the name of connection but in service of craft. His devotion to craft is so intense that even his partner and surrogate son, Jesse, is an extension of his ability to produce. He uses the fruits of his labor (money, enough to send his kids to college ten times over) to justify the joy of producing. The equivalence between Walt’s chemistry, his cowboyism, and his technical craft is often explicit — never more so than when Jesse compares cooking meth to a woodworking class in which he subsumed himself as a teenager.
The exercise of artistry, and its close cousin, the exercise of power, offer rare last flashes in the darkness of Walt’s cancer-afflicted denouement. But why is Walt in darkness to begin with? Why can’t he be happy with his loving family? Why is his connection to his beautiful dark twisted superlab so much more profound than his connection to the love of his life, his wife? Why is his surrogacy of Jesse, an extension of his craft, so much more potent than his relationship to Walt Jr, an extension of his flesh and blood?
Why is none of it enough?
A friend of mine writes to me often about the social value of art and curiosity. Occasionally, he tries to convince us both that the the relationship between craft and social good is linear; more often, he tries to imagine scenarios in which that could be true. A talented writer and sometimes logician, he needs someone to prove to him that the hours he spends honing his craft are unimpeachably, altruistically valuable.
Some maladaptation is at play here. Wouldn’t it be terrific if craftsmen solved problems more useful than a social network for this or that? Of course it would; so, too, would it be terrific if the chemists on Breaking Bad could see beyond the joy of their craft to the thousands of meth addicts whose lives they ruin. It would be terrific if the connection between craftsman and craft were just a little less complete. Wouldn’t it?
There are knots tangled so tight that it takes a gentle pull here, a tough jerk there, a crazy, irrevocable snip there to tease them apart. There are victories snatched from the dragon jaws of defeat and danced, stumbling, over a rubiconic bridge. There are leaps, just beyond one’s grasp, that improbably find purchase.
There are moments. Not many, but enough.
- guest post by A. A. Sarma; find more of it at www.blog.aasarma.com