What Do Creative People Mean by “Craft” Anyway?

Originally posted to the Unthinkable blog at unthinkable.fm.

When someone utters the phrase “care for craft,” what do you hear? “That person gives several damns about their work" -- right?

And what do you see? Maybe you picture someone dutifully whittling a piece of wood. Maybe you think of a brewer holding up their beer to the light to examine it. Maybe you see a writer bent over a desk, burning the candle at both ends. (Side note: I've tried this. Only one side will burn. The other side just melts wax over your keyboard. Not a fun experience. Burning a candle on both end: 2 stars.)

Whatever you see, you probably don't envision an assembly line churning out more widgets or an old white guy in a suit looking sad on his way into a big glass skyscraper.

This idea of “craft” is crucial to any creative career, and we can all likely come up with some broad list of traits, images, and emotions that fits this idea.

But what the heck does caring for your craft actually mean?

On Unthinkable's last episode, we talk about “craft-driven creators” — but what are those? What defines them?

Being craft-driven, I hope we can all agree, is about the way a person behaves. A writer who cares for her craft will behave much differently on a marketing team than a career marketer who loves to tinker on the company cost-per-click. And when that second person approaches that writer? Oh boy. So much friction and tension and stress can come out, simply because one is thinking “craft” and the other is thinking “results."

To start defining what’s happening and defining this notion of craft, we can turn to game theory of all things. A few years ago, I was working as head of content and creative for a startup that specialized in game-like brand experiences. To get up to speed on the subject of game mechanics, I read the book Game Frame by Aaron Dignan. And I encountered a word that forever changed my understanding of human behaviors:


A telic activity is something done for the end result alone. In other words, it's a chore. The opposite of a telic activity is an intrinsic activity — done for the sake of doing it. Done for the process.

Just think about eating ice cream versus sweeping your floor. When you eat ice cream, you’re not happy once you reach the end of the bowl or have a full belly. Your happiness comes from the process, and this does some amazing things to our behavior — namely, you IMPROVE the process. You try new flavors. You add toppings. You eat ice cream with and on and next to other things.

But what about sweeping your floor? You don’t (typically) take any pleasure out of the process of sweeping, right? The activity is done to reach an end result: a clean floor. But you’d rather blink your eyes or outsource it to someone else than go through the process. As a result, I’d wager we’re all way worse at sweeping than we could be if we actually enjoyed it. (I’ve even heard of parents hiding money around the house to incentivize their kids to clean more deeply.)

A craft-driven creator approaches her work as an intrinsically motivating activity. They act accordingly. Ditto for those who come into conflict with the craft-driven creator — they might view their work as a means to an end. They view the creator's work as telic. They view their own work the same way.

On this past week's episode, we learn about these ideas of telic and intrinsic and how it affects our lives as creators. We go behind-the-scenes of someone who’s entire life has been built around searching for and executing on an intrinsically motivating craft. And we hear why this person, with his business on the line, with a team counting on him to deliver, and with an entire city watching him, invested all he had in remaining craft-driven.

Other favorite moments from this week’s podcast:

Did you know the world EXISTS before 5am? Seriously — the buildings and trees and sidewalks and roads and cars you walk by every day are all still there if you leave your house at 5. Who knew? (Not me, until I made this episode.)

Another random but awesome thing I learned during this episode: There’s a U.S. Barista Championship! They have regional and then a national competition to make great coffee. (I still haven’t decided if I’m excited or confused. Let’s go with both.)
A 600-pound wooden tricycle collided with a taxi door — guess which won.

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Posted on April 15, 2016 .