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Blog // Creativity
November 9, 2021

Gary Rogowski On Quality And Mastery

A furniture maker’s reflections on mastering his craft contain an idea about quality we could all learn from. This is Gary Rogowski on Quality.

When I started writing about mastery, a book I knew we’d have to discuss was Gary Rogowski’s Handmade: Creative Focus in the Age of Distraction. Rogowski is a legendary furniture maker and teacher, and was a contributing editor of Fine Woodworking magazine for 14 years. Handmade has become one of my favorite books to cite in conversations and on this blog.

Using the practice of working with your hands as a foundation for understanding life philosophy makes Handmade a welcome companion to books like Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft (which I’ve previously mentioned here and here).

Handmade is an expansive book. Amongst the practical advice about working with tools, or the way mistakes in the workshop build character, there are reflections on jazz, philosophy, even mountain climbing.

In particular, I’d like to focus on the way Rogowski uses the word “quality”, which for him takes on such a philosophical meaning it often appears capitalized, as Quality.

The Concept Of Quality

For Rogowski, Quality carries someone from being a brash beginner who thinks they know it all to a practitioner with a humbler attitude, someone who has acquired a deeper sense of the challenge of mastering their craft.

“Workers go from know-it-alls, which is their insecurity talking, to a humility that allows them to learn more about their craft. As they learn what real Quality is, they learn to be open.”

– Gary Rogowski

Quality isn’t just a property of something. It’s also a thing both the maker and the final user experience. It’s a connection between them, something they both participate in. Quality isn’t a feature or benefit to be marketed but a cultural connection between the maker, the user, and the thing that was made.

“If we care enough about our work to do the work well, then the user will in some small way see this. There will be no separation between what someone is and what someone does. This is Quality, and our culture’s pursuit of capital, of fame, of being heard more loudly in a sea of shouting, misses the importance of it.”

– Gary Rogowski

For Rogowski, Quality extends across time, from the making and sharpening of your tools, the decisions that go into designing the thing, the frustration of making and unmaking many mistakes, the small details, the satisfaction of a job well done, the delight of a customer as they take your product home, and the enduring memory of the work you completed. The whole cycle is Quality.

The Foundation Of Quality

Let’s say you make a really good chair. Then you sell that chair to someone who loves it and appreciates the work that went into making it. Does it matter then if you post a picture of the chair on Instagram and no one likes it?

If your focus is on quality, the popularity of something on an Instagram post is secondary. Given the atmosphere most of us work in, that’s quite a revolutionary idea.

Quality is a philosophy of work. It gives us a sense of self that is stronger and more resilient than one which comes from online validation.

You know Quality when you see it. You also know Quality when you feel yourself working towards it. There’s no bullshit in Quality.

Quality and Mastery

Earlier this year, popular guitar player Mateus Asato quit Instagram. He was hugely popular. But he felt the game of making popular Instagram video clips of his playing had led him down a joyless path. Instead of playing songs and making music, he was just performing short, flawless clips, snippets of music for the algorithm.

“I got lost inside the boxes of 15–60-second videos.”
– Mateus Asato

Tommy Emmanuel, in the Masterclass I recently wrote about, said it was important to make your practice sessions fun. The act of picking up your guitar competes with other potential sources of joy and satisfaction, like playing computer games or switching on Netflix.

You’d better make sure your practice routine gives you a dopamine rush!

Of course, it’s not that simple. Sometimes practice is hard. It’s work. And all work is frustrating at times. Heartbreaking, even. But this is why Quality matters. It sets the standard, the goal, and the measure. It keeps us off the unfulfilling path.

“The difference between the professional and amateur, however, is that the pro quits beating himself up and gets on to fixing things. The whining and crying and arguing with myself usually takes longer than the fix anyhow.”
– Gary Rogowski

Mastery Is A By-Product

Quality puts the goal of mastery into perspective. It corrects us if we’re too prone to focussing on one step of the journey, on learning, acquiring tools, being excellent at just one part of the craft. It reminds us we’re here to make things others will enjoy – and to become better people along the way.

“Mastery, of anything, is an accumulation of experiences that, if you have a brain instead of rocks in your head, points out to you the truth of these things: you will get old, you can learn from your mistakes, and you should help others to their own truth. The things that you make will also accumulate and survive you.”

– Gary Rogowski

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