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The importance of mastery in a post robotic era

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy January 10, 2016
In a post robotic world, where will the next generation of masters come from? We need a revival in apprenticeships.

Over the last few weeks, we have touched on generalization, specialization and on being a polymath in the context of the future of work. This time I want to talk about mastery.

The past weekend my brother Pete and his wife Helen came to visit us. Of itself that sounds like little more than a routine family visit but nothing is routine about my brother. He is a craftsman, a luthier, a jeweler, a teacher and a person who understands the importance of curiosity and life long learning.

Today, he is on a mission to complete a 1,000 hand crafted ukuleles. Hopefully, that will happen before Parkinsons Disease takes away the craft he has practiced for more than 20 years but which has its roots in learning going back almost 50 years. He doesn't want anyone's sympathy but does want to pass on his knowledge. As an aside, Pete's ukes are as much works of art as they are fabulous instruments.

It got me thinking about the business of mastery in a world where the dominant themes of 2016 will likely include the dehumanization of processes through robotization.

During our conversation, Pete talked about a film he'd seen called The Watchmaker's Apprentice. A trailer is included above. The trailer teases us to learn more about two British watchmakers who, in the eyes of some experts, make or made the finest examples of timepieces in the world. No Apple Watch for them! But that's not the point.

Explaining mastery

Mastery of any craft matters and in the film we see how an 'apprentice' who makes every component of his watches, earns the approval of another master. It is both touching and uplifting. Mastery takes time and for those who are dedicated to that 'one thing,' learning never ends.

Hugh MacLeod has talked about mastery on many occasions but his seminal discussion started here in 2012 where he refers to Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Among MacLeod's talking points:

7. Our man, Jiro is eighty five years old (EIGHTY FIVE!), doesn’t have a lot of money or own a fleet of trendy restaurants in all the world’s capitals, a-la Wolfgang Puck. He’s just being doing it for 60 years; he just has just a small, plain, dingy, ordinary, low-key sushi bar with ten seats in a Tokyo subway, the kind you’d probably just walk by without stopping if you saw it. Ten seats!  Yet he’s the best in the world at what he does.

8. Jiro works over 350 days a year, serves sushi and sashimi to people in very small numbers, and THAT’S IT. Just sushi. No salad, no appetizers, no deserts. Like I said, JUST SUSHI. And by sticking to this bare-bones formula, he’s become the first sushi chef in the world to win three Michelin stars.

9. A tiny little sushi bar in some random subway station. Yet people wait in line, people book a stool at his sushi bar as much as a year in advance, a prices starting around $600 a head. People have been known to fly all the way from America or Europe, just to experience a 30-minute meal. In a subway station!

McLeod's understanding of mastery is interesting because today, his business is focused on workplace transformational change through art as a social object that inspires conversation. He's very good at it but only because he continues to practice what he does best - making people think through art.

Mama, mama, mama

As I was thinking about this story, Vijay Vijayasankar pinged me with a story from Quartz entitled: What's Eating Silicon Valley. The nut of the story goes like this:

Perhaps the biggest critique of Silicon Valley comes from a technologist quoted in Vanity Fair’s recent article by Nick Bilton—“SF tech culture is focused on solving one problem: What is my mother no longer doing for me?”

Getting a car on demand, finding something online, business productivity tools, connecting with people—these are solutions that the market demands and rewards. They make money. Silicon Valley is like Wall Street in that it will fill and pursue market opportunities to their logical extremes.

If there’s one way that Silicon Valley can lead and distance itself from critiques of insularity and out-of-touchness, it’s to tackle the big, thorny, difficult problems that would improve the state of the world. Problems that are messy, protracted, and involve the prospect of failure and embarrassment. They don’t have a ready market. They affect rich and poor alike. They touch flawed systems. They’re less “What did Mom do to make my life better?” and more “What would make Mom proud?” They require you to do more than cut a check, and instead hunker down and grind away for years.

Grinding away for years is what mastery is about. Unfortunately it doesn't sit well with the instant gratification crowd. Paradoxically, mastery does not sit well with the current outcomes of the American education system, which, according to the Quartz story author:

National SAT scores are at their lowest points in a decade. Online education is ubiquitous, yet we don’t seem to be getting any smarter. If anything, it’s kind of the opposite. We have decades of research on effective education that isn’t being implemented nationwide. Meanwhile, we plow millions of kids through a factory system that was designed in the agrarian era.

And Silicon Valley has a burgeoning tech industry? How does that compute? (sic)

Where are our apprentices?

In a back and forth with Vijay, he said, among other things, that we need to bring back apprenticeship, something that is sadly lacking in STEM. I agree. And so does my brother. He recently took on an apprentice and would dearly love to fund more. That may not be possible in the short term but it is a start. He says that once his condition reaches the point where he can no longer make instruments, he will continue to teach the craft in one way or another.

Thinking more broadly, Vishal Sikka, CEO Infosys is on record saying that a strong emphasis on education is a core part of what his company stands for. Sikka takes pride in talking about the number of students the company puts through its various training programs and in particular, the number of people who have completed courses on design thinking - another core part of his thinking. The recently established Infosys Foundation that helps disadvantaged kids get into education is laudable. There is much more that could be done.

I want to see technology companies create apprenticeships that allow people to develop a range of skills but with the option of starting the journey towards becoming a master at one thing. To me, that fulfills the need for quality in the post robotic workplace while encouraging creativity.

#justsayin ;)

Disclosure: Infosys is a premier partner at time of writing

Featured image: from Pete Howlett's Facebook page

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