I spent time yesterday walking by the Broads, the great expanse of waterways that run through East Anglia. There are still quite a number of boatbuilders active from small yards by the side of the water, many of them working on historic craft as well as modern ones, keeping them alive.
Boatbuilding is a highly skilled job, not something you can bodge easily (bodging being my preferred methodology for DIY). It’s not just that you need to be good with wood, but you need to understand the aesthetics as well, because a sailing boat is a curious mixture of function and form. On the one hand, it’s an easy concept: make it float and stick a sail on top to catch the wind, but in reality, boats have character. They have personality and they are beautiful. Or rather, most of them are. Some are tubby and functional, bobbing around like little tugs, whilst others are sleek and slender, looking fast even when stationary.
A boat is more than just a collection of parts built from a plan. It’s got personality and character. It’s almost alive. A craftsman understands this, understands that you have to love and nurture the parts to create the personality, or maybe to let the personality emerge. Running your hands over a curved hull, seeing the grain running along the lines of the planking, golden in sunlight, this is a pleasure.
These are not skills that you learn overnight. They are skills that you strive to master over a lifetime. They are old skills, handed down, honed, refined, based as much in tradition as necessity.
Whilst the skills of a boatbuilder are learnt over time, many of the things we train and learn today are the opposite: transient, ephemeral, quick. Often almost disposable. The most that many of us learn from month to month or even year to year is a new piece of computer software or a new business process. The consequence of a busy life and portfolio career is that we tend to learn lots of things superficially, but few things in depth, and we rarely consider which skills we are going to spend our lives honing.
Clearly there is still a role for specialists, but increasingly the types of craft that were taught through apprenticeships, the types of activities that were learnt over time are either automated or curtailed.
But this isn’t some misty eyed reflection of bygone days, some nostalgic reflection on a heyday of sepia toned woodshavings and wise eyed craftsmen. We do still learn skills over time, but maybe they are different types of skills. And maybe we sometimes miss the link between skills and aesthetics. Time pressures drive us to focus on the immediate application of learning, to focus on knowledge or compliance, but it often misses out the time for reflection, for practice, for the deepening of knowledge that comes with time.
But we can still learn a craft, indeed, we should actively consider what our craft is and how we are building our skills. Maybe our craft is writing, or performing, or playing an instrument, or programming, but there is still room for the aesthetic. Learning is about mastering the functional, for sure, but there can be more than that. I want to learn to write better, not just to join the words together, but to create something more than the sum of the parts. Maybe if you are a teacher, the inspiration you provide is more than the sum of the hours you spend in class. Or maybe it could be if you paused to reflect more often. If you consider how much of what we do is functional, and how much focus we put on the aesthetic.
Mastering skills can be hard, but mastering a craft is harder, and it takes longer, but it’s good to reflect on where we are on this journey. It’s good if the boat floats, but is it beautiful?