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Inventing - for the worse?

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People have an irresistible urge to create. But we often mistake productivity with creativity with really creating. Homo creativus. But is this always a good thing? The best inventions in the world bring great sorrow to millions of people today. Then I started wondering, what if…

Electricity wasn’t invented? Mass production wouldn’t be possible. Everything you use, from your watch to your laptop, stove, to what you’re wearing wouldn’t be possible. Big grocery stores wouldn’t exist. Small specialized shops and professions would reign over the endless army of paper pushers we know today. Wouldn’t that be a great thing? Looking past the obvious famine problems and the lack of lights without matches, I would be pretty stoked about:

  • The local tailor everybody knows. Your clothes fit and are exactly what you want. But it’s very expensive and you can only afford three or four outfits. Another advantage?
  • The complete lack of anything “made in China” or “plastic”. That would include 3D printers and throwaway garbage.
  • Writing a book with ink.
  • Being a craftsman by using my hands without asking myself if I should job-hop to the next challenge.

So many things nowadays are simply that: “things”. You use them, and if you’re bored throw them away. The more I talk to people about anything, the more I’m afraid the throwaway thing is becoming a philosophy: throw your job away if you’re bored, throw your wife away if you’re bored. It’s already becoming a “thing” - pun intended. The story of stuff does a better job at explaining this. Stuff undoubtedly creates tension and makes people rethink what they’re doing. That might not be bad at all, but we often jump to the wrong conclusions based on what we see or think to see on the other side.

We used to have less stuff and to care a lot more about the little things that we had. Most stuff was expensive so naturally you would take care of it and make sure it lasted a long time, or when it’s broken make sure it’s fixed instead of simply replacing it by something else. In that era, we weren’t yet that disconnected with our possessions and these things were all made by expert craftsman.


The word “profession” is barely used anymore. According to the dictionary, a profession is:

a paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification.

Prolonged training isn’t a matter of days or weeks but years. Most people don’t work that long for the same employer anymore. True mastery seems to fade away. Highly specialized jobs still exist but are becoming the exception instead of the rule thanks to automatisation and globalization.

Another one, “craftsmanship”:

the quality of design and work shown in something made by hand; artistry.


The skill in a particular craft

where craft means

an activity involving skill in making things by hand.

The made by hand part is crucial here. The recent resurgence of “things made by hand” might prove the urge we humans have to create beautiful things by hand instead of letting machines do the job for us. Think Etsy and Pinterest for example. Human satisfaction is stripped away when an automated mold prints hundred of things within minutes, as is our meticulous care for those products: they now get tossed in the bin if we don’t like them anymore.

The fancy word “craftsmanship” is sadly often abused thinking it might net you a nice job with a high wage if you spray it around your CV.

craftsman at work in the Middle Ages
The craftsman at work in the Middle Ages.

Creating something physical has been replaced by something digital: bolts and pieces by lines of code. You’re still creating, but that feeling of the material disappeared. Apprenticeship also changed: instead of working and living for years at the bidding of your master, you now hopefully pick up some tips and tricks from a colleague before moving on to the next job. It’s become much more implicit and that is definitely for the worse. Googling “the lost art of mentoring” nets me an astonishing amount of recent articles on cool websites like “refresh leadership”.

People feel disconnected with their work because of this. Band work is not suited for anyone (I highly doubt it’s for anyone at all!), despite what someone might try to tell you. I bet a lot of those workers compensate the lack of creating by hobbies like cooking or painting. Every single being has this urge. Some might simply have given up.

However, not all is lost: we are starting to recognize the need for artisan professions instead of paperwork jobs. The Manifesto of Software Craftsmanship says it “raises the bar” by applying the following:

Not only working software,
but also well-crafted software

Not only responding to change,
but also steadily adding value

Not only individuals and interactions,
but also a community of professionals

Not only customer collaboration,
but also productive partnerships

I’ve been in the software industry for more than 10 years and like I said before, sadly enough I have the feeling that most IT professionals calling themselves craftsman have no idea what implications of the words in the manifesto actually mean. It’s frequently used as a commercial selling point rather than a way to elevate your own skills. But that is a whole other problem, the same thing is happening with flashy words like “scrum” and “agile”, becoming more and more meaningless.


Yes, we have more freedom to do what we want thanks to the rise of working a fixed amount of hours each week. But this seemingly abundance of extra free time also spawned hundreds of books about answering the question what to do with that time. It looks like we forgot to be satisfied with what we have. We are trying to solve problems that aren’t there if only we were contented. The absence of a deity and the impulse to profess every natural occurrence nowadays only fuels this dissatisfaction.

Alain de Botton described this phenomena in his book “Status Anxiety”. Our free time gets gobbled up by trying to meet the implicit requirements of belonging to a group by comparing ourselves to how others are doing. Instead of giving in to our need to create, we go out and buy things to let others know we’re doing at least as well as them. This makes you even more unhappy on the long run, but you won’t notice it right away because climbing up a ladder where everyone can see you feels great.

I think it’s time we look at the past and learn from habits of our ancestors. The key to unlocking your creative self - and your happiness - is not giving up on what you’re doing now because others say so but giving in to that urge of creating and to stop comparing our actions.

tags icon craftsmanship

I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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