Mastery vs. Education

The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because philosophy is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water. — John W. Gardner

 My friend Mike is making his own bows. From scratch. From rawhide and sinew and wood. He’s also doing his own bone inlay work, and while he could use a dremel or similar power tool to polish, cut, and fit the bone, he doesn’t.

He’s not doing this to merely do it as skillfully as possible to as high a degree of craftsmanship as possible, while doing it efficiently right now. He’s trying to make it to as high a degree of craftsmanship as he can, while learning and improving his knowledge of the art of making a bow from scratch.

He is forgoing the convenience of power tools to learn the craft better through patience and repetition.

He is actively seeking mastery.

It is humble work, but he revels in it, takes pride in it.

I bring this up because we, as a society, seem to think that just because a person talks like they’re educated and can drop references to various philosophers or operas, that the person in question is somehow better, more ‘educated.’

I grew up with this attitude, but one thing twelve years in the Navy taught me, among a bunch of motivated Navy nukes from all over the country just as smart as me, is that talk doesn’t matter when it is time to do, and that while smart people may talk educated, a lot of ridiculously smart, scarily competent people don’t bother to talk educated unless that’s the subject matter of the moment.

Some of them still sound like good ole boys from the sticks.

And some of the most book smart, “educated”-sounding people I’ve met have been completely worthless.

Mastery is independent of subject matter. It could be achieved in philosophy or history through extensive reading, in bowmaking, in plumbing, or in simply chopping firewood.

Achieving mastery, striving for excellence, is the education. Not the nature of the subject studied. It is an attitude, and one that must be lived. It must be humble, for one is not a master of all things.

This is doubly important to anyone in a service capacity – which ultimately, in any business you are. Yes, you will run into stupid people sometimes, but I always hesitate to refer to someone as stupid. Why? Because I’ve seen some ridiculously smart and competent people who were completely oblivious about my field – computers – and yet I could not find the time in my life to achieve the level of skill and proficiency they have at their profession.

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