8 min read

Placing Ourselves

Placing Ourselves

Last week I outlined some thoughts on New Artisans' roles in rapidly changing times. Those thoughts led me to wonder where and when we play those roles in enabling our communities' greatest impact, which has proven to be a very engaging rabbit hole. Having emerged from that, there are three aspects I want to share in this (longer than normal) post:

  1. As markets collide, combine and evolve, where do we place ourselves in that space?
  2. Where do we place ourselves relative to the timescales of the challenges emerging?
  3. The problem with maps.

Where in the workplace?

The nature of the Artisan is that whilst they might always be seeking to be better at what they do today, that search leads them right to the edge of current knowledge and practice. As they probe the uncertainty at the edge, it does not follow that what they find will be just a way of improving what they currently do; it might be a cliff edge that uncovers a whole new understanding and undermines the security of what they do today.

Skilled weavers found themselves first displaced by relatively crude but effective mechanisation, then in demand as the machinery became more sophisticated and needed skilled oversight, and then displaced again as globalisation enabled the relocation of the entire domestic industry. They didn't see any of it coming because they were focused on what they knew, whilst what displaced them came from somewhere entirely new to them.

Here are just three of the current disruptors on my mind:

AI and machine learning

The industrial revolution's weavers are today's professionals - accountants, lawyers, architects, doctors and others who have enjoyed status and reward from the expensive accumulation of capabilities that are being steadily absorbed by machine learning and A.I. Garry Kasparov's account of his experience as world chess champion in "Deep Thinking" is an engaging, and humbling story that has lessons for all of us.

A recent article in the Economist (paywall) on AI concludes:

"For years it has been said that ai-powered automation poses a threat to people in repetitive, routine jobs, and that artists, writers and programmers were safer. Foundation models challenge that assumption. But they also show how ai can be used as a software sidekick to enhance productivity. This machine intelligence does not resemble the human kind, but offers something entirely different. Handled well, it is more likely to complement humanity than usurp it"

A minority of weavers - those who moved into the space between craft and technology - became wealthy. Most did not and saw their craft disappear beneath them.

Sustainability and ReGeneration

The last decade has seen us endure a tidal wave of greenwash as an increased understanding of the reality of climate change has put those in the hugely profitable industries of fossil fuel, pharmaceuticals and agrifood under increasing pressure. As that tide recedes, to expose a greater, genuine understanding of the issues, I wonder whether "Sustainability" - do no more harm  - will hold.  I think ReGeneration has more heft and implies a very different approach - working in harmony with nature rather than just not brutalising it.

The implications are huge. It calls into question what we manufacture, the very notion and nature of "growth" as to whether we mean quality or quantity, and our tolerance of "bullshit products" - from ubiquitous single-use plastics to fast fashion, to cheap air travel, energy-hungry social media and of course the ever profitable arms industry.

The transition seems likely to be messy and resisted - there's a lot of establishment at stake, but ultimately will take place if we are to choose to survive a while longer. I think it offers fertile ground for artisans if they are prepared to take a stance and show integrity as to the work they "sign".

Regeneration is, I suspect, the equivalent of the industrial revolution's technology.

The Architecture of Business

Just to reiterate, I use "New Artisans" as a metaphorical device as we search for a better description of what is emerging.

I think it's hard to be a New Artisan unless we have agency. The ability to have our work recognised by those who recognise craft, the unique nature of what we do, and the discretionary power to pay for it. That's easy for an architect, but how about an accountant? When eighty per cent of the UK Economy is in the service sector, how many of us are part of a process rather than an author of a recognisable piece of work?

If the architecture of the business we work in proves to be faulty, and collapses, can we pick up our tools, put up a sign on the door, and start work on our own account?

It's an uncomfortable question, but one I think we need to ask. If we're not an Artisan in the business we work in, where might we develop the skills to express our soul in something of genuine and lasting value that people will cherish?


Where in time?

When I'm thinking, I find it difficult to imagine the future if I'm surrounded by artefacts of today, and I can't get to grips with today if my mind is crowded out with imaginings of tomorrow.

The place I like to get to is the space in between - grounded in today but able to let it go whilst looking for the threads from which tomorrow might be woven.

The Artisan in me inhabits all those spaces, although differently.  

Today's Artisan is concerned with what I'm producing right now - the words I'm typing, what they look like, and who they're for. I often rearrange them, play with them, and find different words to use, but the point is the same - my focus is on right now, using what I have available, where I am, for who I'm serving.

Tomorrow's Artisan is looking for materials to shape. Reading, Conversations, Podcasts, and quiet time to let them all mingle and settle until tomorrow becomes today.

The Artisan of the in-between is the most demanding. Concentrating on what is hiding in plain sight between today's certainties and tomorrow's imaginings. Intuition devoid of hard evidence. The words, ideas and paths that frighten me a little but which I need to tread and take the risk of appearing foolish as I try to describe them.  These "safe to fail" experiments are vital for me, with mistakes as valuable as those that resonate. The only risk is appearing foolish. I've had a lifetime of practice at that, and the "return on foolishness" has uncovered opportunities in my life for which I am ever grateful.

I believe we should all be willing to entertain that risk because amid the turmoil we face. It offers opportunities for a more fulfilling life, marrying signature work with personal growth that serves our communities. Those opportunities cannot be found through logic and analysis but through treading where others fear to.

Our monthly conversation on Wednesday moved me further into a conclusion I have been moving towards.  Sue Heatherington captured it beautifully, as she so often does.

"Describing a New Artisan is like trying to photograph the Wind."

I took from that that whilst we can see the power of wind, we cannot only sense its source. I think New Artisans have a similar quality. Skill powered by Soul. Artisanal as a way of being that pays no attention to time. It is not an achievement, a qualification, or a badge; it is about doing something well that matters to us for the joy of it and the possibilities it uncovers.

I think it is very individual and can be in any domain where we have agency and are willing to be accountable.  It is our own territory, and we must create our own map.


The Problem with Maps

"The map is not the territory"

A phrase coined by the Polish-American philosopher and engineer Alfred Korzybski. He used it to convey the fact that people often confuse models of reality with reality itself. Models represent things, but they are not identical to those things.

My own conclusion (other conclusions are, of course, available) is that whilst skills can be trained; Artisanal is a way of being. It reminds me of a paper by Chellie Spiller titled "Calling the Island to You" which recalls that thousands of years ago, Polynesian navigators observed what was around, above and below them to position their double-hulled Wakas in such a way as the islands they were travelling to "came to them" rather than them actively searching for them. It's an idea that has stayed with me since I first read her paper years ago and aligns with Artisanal as a way of being. If we pay attention to ourselves and our surroundings, the work we want will find its way to us.

The clear challenge in this, of course, is that the nature of our society is that we are educated and trained from our earliest years to fulfil predetermined roles. We are guided and motivated by, as Alfie Kohn puts it, "Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes", only to find, as we develop our careers, that they are not what really drive us. By this time, we will most likely have responsibilities that bind us to what we started. It's a huge challenge. The temptation to just put up with it and consume our way out of the pain is ever-present.

But I do not think the Artisan in us will be denied. If it's not to be found in our work, then we need to create the space for it to make itself known because we all have one.

The best way I have found for that to happen is in conversations with other people doing the same. As much diversity as we can manage, talking about what we're noticing, what engages us, what we wonder about.

Conversations without a map, but paying the attention that will call our Artisan to us.


Next Week

Where do Artisans belong in the community in a rapidly changing world when we can work anywhere?


Coming up this month.

On 16th November, 6:00pm UK time, we have the opportunity to converse with Dr Ed Brenegar.

Ed believes that all our lives are in transition. Our families, organizations, communities, and world is in transition. These transitions present to us problems and opportunities for creating change that makes a difference that matters. We can’t create solutions without clarifying the real problems that we face. He aims to help people break down the barriers holding them back; to empower them to become leaders in their personal and professional lives. For over 30 years, he has worked with senior executives, entrepreneurs and organizational clients to solve the real problems thconfronting leaders.

This short article gives you a good insight into Ed's work, and you can find out more about him and his book here:

Ed Brenegar Is A Founder, Keynote Speaker, Author & Leadership Coach
Dr. Ed Brenegar works with organizational leaders to expand their leadership impact and the productivity of their organization through the creation of cultures of trust and leadership initiative.

The call will be on our usual Zoom link, and providing all those on the call are in agreement, will be recorded for those that can't make it. I hope you can make it though - conversations with Ed are a contact sport.

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Have a wonderful weekend all.