By Scott Keith –
“For in fact, there are people who enjoy their work.
You can earn money at something without the money,
or what it buys, being the focus of your day.
To be capable of sustaining our interest, a job has to have room to
progress in excellence.”
– Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft
What does it mean to “progress in excellence”? Here at The Jagged Word, we have been asking questions of quality for a little over a year now, and I’m not sure I’m any closer to an answer, now, than I was a year ago. I am asking my second son, Joshua (17), to read Crawford’s book this week. He thinks that he would like to learn a trade rather than go to college; something that I encourage. He excels at many things that bring him pleasure in the doing; it is just that school is not necessarily one of them. So how does Joshua, frankly how do any of us, progress in the excellence of what we do?
I think we need to identify a few things here as necessary for excellence. Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” So if Aristotle is to be believed, the first part of excellence is to create a habit. Second, excellence involves acquiring a depth of knowledge not only sufficient to your task, but deep enough to produce an excellent result. Lastly, I think that excellence involves the ability to discern those things that are profoundly important to your work as opposed to those that are of a secondary nature. In my world we call these ultimate and penultimate.
So how does this play out, at least in theory? Let’s reflect on Crawford’s assumption, “To be capable of sustaining our interest, a job has to have room to progress in excellence.” The goal here is to find that vocation, to which God has called you, which will be capable of sustaining your interest through the pursuit of progress in excellence. What I am positing is that if we apply ourselves toward the habit of gaining the necessary knowledge of our vocation and discern those tasks that are profoundly important we will have taken a step toward progress in excellence.
How would this look as applied to the craft of preaching? If the preacher makes a habit of preparing himself through weekly careful study of the text, in the original languages, he will thereby acquire the knowledge necessary to convey the message of salvation to his parishioners, and hopefully discern what is profoundly important: that Christ, and Him crucified and risen, is handed over in a real way every Sunday. Habit + Knowledge + Discernment = a sermon which brings home the goods.
How would this apply to my Joshua as he learns a trade? Over the summer, Joshua worked as a window installer. It was incumbent upon him in this vocation to learn about windows, measurements, carpentry, installation, customer service, safety, and the list goes on. As he progressed in this it became necessary for him to develop the habit of craftsmanship and attention to detail. So as his boss Daniel put it to me, Joshua developed the habit of careful work, gained enough knowledge to be a good installer, and was working toward the discernment, which would be necessary to lead an installation team. He was progressing in excellence. Habit + Knowledge + Discernment = a well-installed window that lets in the sun, opens and closes properly, and won’t leak.
So what is the point of all of this? Our culture has lost a sense of excellence. So many of the things we do now we do because we believe they are necessary or required, not because we want to find quality or excellence. I think what Crawford is really positing, is the idea that happiness comes from the freedom that lies in sustaining our vocational interest. In other words, doing what we have been set free to do to fulfill our calling. As Christians, this has a deeper meaning. We know that not only do we attempt to progress in the excellence of our work, but also, that God has called us to this work. We know we are free. We know we will fail. We know we are forgiven in all things; even our lame attempts at excellence. But, we also know that we are free in what God has called us to be, His, “workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which He prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” So whether you are a preacher or a window installer, know that you are God’s workmanship and he has prepared for you to sustain your interest in vocations in which you have room to progress in excellence. And thanks be to God for the grace He has shown on us in Christ Jesus when we fail at even these everyday tasks.