I’m not at all handy, so the satisfaction of fixing a broken sink or blown electrical circuit is one that I don’t know. But it’s got to be a good one: The thing isn’t working; I do something to the thing; now it’s working. What joy! A tangible result, traced directly back to one’s actions.
The closest I come to experiencing this type of satisfaction is writing. I start with a blank page and, if all goes well, I finish with one that is full. But unlike in the above examples — the water runs; the lights turn on — with writing, it’s a bit harder to discern whether or not I did a “good” job.
Just about everything I’ve ever written shares one thing in common: some people love it and some people hate it. And, I’m becoming wise enough to understand that, love or hate, a reader’s response often has more to do with what they are experiencing in their lives than it does with my writing.
How, then, should I judge my work?
By holding myself to the standard of a craftsperson.
Did I put my all into the work? Did I approach it with care? Was I willing to chisel away at each sentence? Did I do the writer’s equivalent to using sandpaper, reading a near-final draft aloud multiple times?
Quality. It’s when someone is so completely present for and dedicated to his or her act that they become hard to separate; they become one.
Here’s Jon Gordon, writing in his outstanding book The Carpenter: “While most people approach their work with the mindset that they just want to get it done, craftspeople are more concerned with who they are becoming and what they are creating whether than how fast they finish it.” He goes on, “The craftsperson is only thinking about building his work with love…when you care about your work you stand out in a world where most don’t care. Caring leads to success.”
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. As I’ve written about before, Robert Pirsig, one of my intellectual heroes, called this Quality. Pirsig’s Quality takes a capital “Q” because it’s a special kind of event that occurs between a subject and an object, between an actor and his or her act. It’s when the former is so completely present for and dedicated to the latter that they become hard to separate; they become one. Though Pirsig struggled to define Quality, he made it clear that it was inextricably connected to authentic caring.
“Care and Quality are internal and external aspects of the same thing,” Pirsig writes in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. “A person who cares about about what he sees and does is a person who’s bound to have some characteristic of quality.”
“When you care about your work you stand out in a world where most don’t care. Caring leads to success.”
Pirsig wasn’t the only one who struggled to define quality. The scholar Avedis Donabedian, who pioneered the movement to measure “quality” in medicine, said that we’ll never be able to fully capture the word’s essence. Perhaps the closest he came was from his deathbed, when he told a journalist, “Ultimately, the secret of quality is love.”
Though most of us work in fields in which external outcomes are often open to interpretation and events beyond our control, we can all adopt the internal standard of a craftsperson. The value of doing so is immense and extends far beyond creating what we can own as “good” work. Because if our ultimate goal is a good life, then the best way to achieve it is by being intimately engaged in the process of living. Whatever you do, proceed like a craftsperson — with caring, Quality, and love.
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Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He’s a columnist at Outside Magazine and New York Magazine and author of Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.