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Artisans, Pirates, Poachers and Trespassers.
When I started thinking about the nature of Artisans at the beginning of last year, my curiosity was driven by noticing that whenever there were major changes in society, artisans always seemed to be in the picture as catalysts. I focused my attention on the nature and psychology of crafts and how those who practice them organise in order to consider whether there is a role for them today, and if so, what? In doing so, I was working on the basis that becoming an artisan was a conscious choice and a way of articulating identity through work. For some, I think that remains true, although I am also considering the possibility that, for others, it is less a conscious choice and more a matter of circumstance.
I noticed an article earlier in the week about successful young people in big organisations increasingly feeling as though they are behaving like actors - using language and behaviours derived from a script under the direction of a producer. The trouble is that they don’t get enough time and space to be themselves; secondly, they become typecast. Faking it, I guess, until you make it carries with it the danger that success becomes ending up as a professional fake.
I find my attention moving from the nature and psychology of artisans to where we find them and why. Artisans are outliers in the business world and beyond (because, increasingly, everything seems to be a business). Their focus is on work as expression, so they do not sit easily in systems where metrics focused on productivity, performance and profit dominate. The process forces them inexorably towards the edges of the distribution curve so that we see them either as celebrity Chefs or in the “Repair Shop”, or we don’t really see them at all other than at a local level. People who take pride in their work.
I’ve been looking at how people come to be artisans. Historically, some were drawn to it, whilst others found themselves placed by family whether they wanted to be there or not. Today, the education system does what family used to do, and I suspect there is now a third reason: a personal reaction to working in organisations where money is made through the volume production of mediocrity, making or creating things that do not matter beyond driving consumption, and with which we do not wish to be associated.
The artisan in each of us demands expression, and just as artists and actors often have to wash dishes or deliver fast food (fewer than 2% of actors make a living at it), we have to do the same as we start out, except that it might be as a corporate lawyer or a big four apprentice consultant working insane hours in the hope of making partner one day.
The article has some sound advice.
The defining difference between amateurs and those who choose to pursue it as a career isn’t talent, but simply that professionals are prepared to endure the daily ritual of humiliation, rejection, financial anguish and grinding unemployment. You have to be tough.
Getting into a good drama school (or business school - my addition) is a great help – at least you have a chance of being noticed. But there are now hundreds of drama schools, and despite their sleek prospectuses, none but the top four or five will be of any use in furthering your chances. Nowadays many actors have a subsidiary profession they can fall back on – designing websites, working in bars, or even delivering sandwiches. But unless you’re careful you can find your backup becomes your main occupation.
What we find ourselves doing whilst waiting for our break becomes what we do and who we become.
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing
For many, it proves to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Nobody wants to go home having successfully marketed a new line of disposable vapes or having found a loophole in some environmental legislation for a utility company to slither through.
I think some people become artisans as an escape to a life that rewards them, even though the money is less.
Which brings me to Pirates
The “Golden Age” of piracy spanned the period from 1650 to 1726. It sprang from a range of motivations, not least an attractive and available market of vulnerable trade routes. What is less known is that it was, for a while, a haven of social revolution, with levels of democracy, equality, social welfare and freedom many of us would envy today. (see “Be More Pirate” for a business perspective and David Graeber for a beautifully written anthropological account.)
The emergence of pirates was driven by two key factors other than market opportunity. Firstly, large numbers of well-trained sailors in national Navies who worked in appallingly dangerous conditions for little reward, and secondly, the availability of an equally dangerous but far more rewarding and egalitarian alternative. At around the same time, The Diggers and the Levellers were making their presence felt, and the Age of Enlightenment was gathering pace. Also gathering pace were the Acts of Enclosure, as common land was sequestered and placed in private ownership.
What linked these things was dissatisfaction with increasing restrictions on freedom, new modes of thinking emerging, and new ways of spreading information.
There was an energy of change in the air. It has a familiar ring to it.
Those who have updated their Mac or iPhone operating systems or Zoom software or accessed the LinkedIn feature will have noticed AI is being shovelled into our lives. The move from spellcheck to sentence suggestion, automated meeting notes, and a host of other capabilities provide the enclosure capabilities of technology to induce helplessness in us. As we delegate more of our work, our thinking, and our ability to shape what we do to apps, not only can we be easily enclosed inside technology boundaries but further guided through this limited space by algorithmic sheepdogs carefully bred by our technology shepherds.
The language we use and the information we access may come from a broader base but are being carefully shaped by technology with the result that much of what we end up writing, recommending and doing will look much the same. “Best Practice” is always a race to the middle.
Originality is great as an idea but does rather mess up carefully monitored processes.
The response of any system under threat is resistance before adaptation and evolution, and I sense we are in such a time. Control and enforcement are on show, barriers are being erected, and governance priorities centre on control, measurement, compliance and productivity.
In these circumstances, being an artisan is an act of resistance and puts us alongside contemporary poachers, trespassers, heretics and pirates.
And the organisations we are part of need us. When Steve Jobs said it was better to be a pirate than join the navy, he was not talking about Apple. He was talking about the Mac team within Apple. That’s a huge difference.
There is art, craft and technique in being an Artisan, but just as much, there is an attitude. Our clients need us more at the same time, at the same time as many in our organisations will resist the disruption to efficiency we represent.
It takes us, I think, to an important nexus. The practicalities of making a living require that we operate within the system, whilst our futures depend on being able to thrive as it slowly (and in some cases, not so slowly) disintegrates.
Compliance leaves us vulnerable to replacement by technology or other lower-cost alternative. Too much overt resistance will have us walking the metaphorical plank.
There is also a paradox. The more a culture of compliance homogenizes, the greater the need for the originality of the artisan in order to innovate, whilst the culture of compliance makes it difficult to accommodate them.
If we are to succeed in the current system, we will most likely have to do so on its terms, and to succeed on our own terms, we must identify a different system. Meanwhile, we have to live day to day in an increasingly disordered, alchemical space that bridges the two.
As I look back at the first part of my exploration into the nature of New Artisans, it becomes clearer that the next step is altogether different and more subversive as we move from theory to individual practice and create space in which we can embrace disorder and uncertainty in order to cross the bridge.
“The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You trade in your sense for an act. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask. There can't be any large-scale revolution until there's a personal revolution, on an individual level. It's got to happen inside first.”
So that is where my attention is taking me.
See you this evening, I hope.
“First Wednesday” Catch Up - This evening
18:00 4th October
Our regular catch-up on things artisanal and beyond. Book Here