Becoming Proficient

I taught one summer at a high flying art/ craft school in Snowmass, Colorado called Anderson Ranch. It’s a glorious place way up high in the Rocky Mountains, about 7000′ up. When a low lander like me gets up there you feel like your head is going to explode for the first day or so, but after that it’s exhilirating. [When you come back down to sea level though, you feel like Superman because of all the extra oxygen you have in your blood. That’s good fun.]

It’s the kind of school where famous people come to teach writing and painting and photography and digital imaging and yet they still teach clay and woodworking there. It’s an exciting atmosphere with lots going on.  I was teaching the woodworking class for one week, a class in joinery or routers or something. Not high falutin’ just some basic stuff.

But next to me in the clay studio was an older gentleman from Japan. He had been a potter for 60 years or so. He was what is known in Japan as a Japanese Living Treasure. These are artists who have preserved and carried on their craft traditions and have been honored by their country for their contributions. [What a concept! To honor living artists instead of feeding on the dead artists like a Road Show.]

He had, as his apprentice there, his daughter. A pierced spiky haired punk rock girl who looked like no child of this craftsman. And yet there she was learning the craft of pottery at the hands of her father. An unlikely pair it would seem, but can’t that be said about most children and their parents?

And every day, he would have her throw the same pot. The exact same pot and it takes very little time for someone who is skilled to throw a pot. She would throw the pot and then when it was finished, when it was perfect, she would crush it. And start again. This was her job. To learn to throw this pot so well that it became a part of her, a part of her fingers, her mind, her breathe. This was her task. To become so immersed in this technique that she was one with it. What a concept! To practice one’s craft until you became so proficient that you could move on to actually making something. Until that point, you were only making yourself into a potter.

It is a very difficult thing to do to become proficient at something. It takes time. It takes patience. And yet when the time is spent well, it offers something back that is so unexpected. No corner of a wall ever gets turned. What one realizes is that the wall is curved. You just keep going. But one day, one day, you’ll be working and you’ll throw that pot so well or handle that chisel so well so as to make just the right cut, and you’ll look up and say oh, I’m here. And then you’ll say, but I have so much further to go.

I have a Mastery Student who lays floors. He is, appropriately enough for a floor layer, a down to earth kind of guy. He works on multi-million dollar homes but he’s just a straight shooter. Anyways, we were talking one day about having employees and the headaches and he used to run a big crew of dozens and there were always problems to be solved. He said that everyone pretty much came in to his crew pretty raw but in a year they were acting like they knew everything. Everything there was to know about wood and floors they acted like they knew it inside of a year. But if they stuck it out, if they stayed around for five or ten years or so, they finally got to the point where they could say, I know a lot, but there’s a whole lot more I don’t know. That’s when you are on the road to becoming proficient. When you can say that.

Published in: on February 23, 2008 at 7:55 am  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , ,

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

One CommentLeave a comment

  1. This reminds me of learning metalsmithing. I just wanted to get it done so I could have something in my hand. Every mistake I made rushing to produce was fraught with problems and bad soldering and sometimes the piece was abandoned.

    Then I remembered something I learned as a child when my mother was teaching me to sew. If you make it look good on the inside, it will look good on the outside. I took that to heart and my metalsmithing started having less problems. I took more care with the initial steps – the designing, the proportions, the sawing, the measuring and suddenly things fit together more easily and they looked good on the outside. It was slower, yes – but infinitely more satisfying.

    I wouldn’t consider myself a master at metalsmithing by any means, I’m on a metalsmithing hiatus. I’ve turned to philosophy and the same things holds. It takes a long time to get good, to become proficient. In both disciplines there are simply no shortcuts. It is a very satisfying and humbling process – and I love the process.

    Thanks for the great blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: