Notes on The Craftsman
Richard Sennett. Yale University Press, 2008
Note 004. 08.16.10 ““ Attention Deficit and Concentration
Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman continues to provide fascinating insights in unexpected places. In a broad discussion of how craftsmen develop their arts through long periods of concentration, his spadework yields fruitful perspective on children. Most parents, he says, worry about attention deficits in small scales, “how a child will concentrate even for one hour at a time.” Teachers try to facilitate this by creating interesting lessons and engaging pupils emotionally, assuming that substantive engagement breeds concentration. Now the shocker: “The long-term development of hand skills shows the reverse of this theory. The ability to concentrate for long periods comes first; only when a person can do so will he or she get involved emotionally or intellectually. The skill of physical concentration follows rules of its own, based on how people learn to practice, to repeat what they do, and to learn from repetition.”
In other words, concentration has an “inner logic.” The way one ingrains complex skills is through hours and hours of practice and repetition. The number “10,000″ continues to surface in the literature (see Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers for more on this). One can become an expert on just about anything by putting in the time, and it doesn’t make much difference whether the issue is basketball, the violin, ice skating, or writing fiction. That’s a lot ““ three hours a day for ten years ““ which is at least what Olympic hopefuls put in before taking a run at the gold. Such repetition turns every aspect of a skill into “readily available, tacit knowledge.” Sennett points out that the medieval apprentice in a given art did the same thing. A young apprentice would spend five hours a day for seven years learning his craft under the master. A modern equivalent of this is the 24/7 pace of medical intern and residency in which the 10,000 hours are compressed into about three years.
Sennett illustrates the point by showing us what happens in a tactile art such as glassblowing. An artist seeking to make a particular goblet to fully capture the blossom of a particular wine found that the glass could be achieved by a meticulous method inaccessible to the novice. The only way to get the desired end was through hours of practice, learning the relationship between turning and blowing, with a far more complex relationship between the hand and the eye than can possibly be described. The concentration required for this is fed by the rhythm of the session, corporeally anticipating the next step, body posture, hand pressure, and rate of expiration. Practicing again and again, especially when success was accidentally achieved, revealed that practicing had its own structure and inherent interest.
Sennett concludes, “The practical value of this advanced handwork to people dealing with attention deficit disorder consists in focusing attention on how practice sessions are organized. Rote learning is not in itself the enemy. Practice sessions can be made interesting through creating an internal rhythm for them, no matter how short; the complicated actions performed by an advanced glassblower or cellist can be simplified while preserving the same structuring of time. We do a disservice to those who suffer from attention deficit disorder by asking that they understand before they engage.”