Craftsmanship and Good Enough

There are four pillars that guide Outward Bound education—physical fitness, self reliance, craftsmanship, and service and compassion. I think craftsmanship means doing things with excellence, ‘whatever you do is worth doing well.’ It means not only performing a skill with excellence, but also doing little things like taking the plastic cap and ring off a milk carton in the recycling. I find this principle the hardest to understand right now. I consider myself a fairly thoughtful and careful person, but when I have craftsmanship in mind, I’m sometimes taken aback at how many little things I do without the utmost craftsmanship. Paddling with Robbin on course last summer

I just finished a book on the relationship between Taoist philosophy and experiential education, Simpson’s The Leader Who is Hardly Known, and it helped me think about craftsmanship in a different way. Simpson outlines a number of qualities of Tao leadership which are qualities also valued in experiential educators. These include humility, tolerance, wu-wei (non-action, or non-contrivance ie. teaching through teachable moments which arrive of their own accord), calm steadiness, and moderation. Simpson describes the quality of moderation as the understanding that ‘good enough is good enough.

Thinking about doing work that’s good enough, rather than done with craftsmanship, brings into focus the question, ‘good enough for what? for whom?’ Last summer we taught our students the knots necessary to set up camp. Knots are a great lesson because if you can make a knot with craftsmanship, it works, and you know right away. Mid-way through the course the students invented the J-knot, which was a tangled mess of p-cord, but which several of them could replicate, and which also worked. It wasn’t crafty, and it wasn’t good enough for the learning goals of the course, but it was good enough for the circumstances, and the students decided that it was good enough for them.

Calling something ‘good enough’ also introduces a sense of endlessness, whereas ‘craftsmanship’ feels more static. A few days I had a great session doing yoga—I felt strong, and attentive to many parts of my body, and deliberate about my alignment. I got good feedback from my instructor, and I felt proud that I had just spent two hours focusing on doing something specific with excellence. It seemed like it would cheapen the accomplishment if I told myself that I had done yoga in a way that was ‘good enough.’ Yet I’m just a beginner at yoga. Perhaps it’s more cheapening to call what I had achieved after several months of practice ‘craftsmanship.’ It was really just good enough for where I am right now.

Simpson suggests leading students to discover what is good enough through providing challenges where the measure of good enough is obvious to everyone. The wilderness often gives us instant feedback. Simpson also suggests leading students in activities that are intrinsically motivating. ‘A way that an experiential educator can train people to develop their sense of good enough is to help students find happiness by doing the things that are important to them—doing them without fear of not being good enough—doing them without concern for how long it takes’ (60). It seems that when people perform skills that they perceive to be intrinsically worthwhile, the distinction between ‘good enough’ and craftsmanship fades.

Steven Simpson, The Leader Who Is Hardly Known: Self-less Teaching from the Chinese Tradition (2003).