Why Blacksmiths are Better at Startups than You


Translations: русский язык

There’s a great show called Mastercrafts, a mini-series documentary from the BBC. I recommend you go out and find a way to watch it, right now.

Mastercrafts is all about — surprise! — master crafts:

  • blacksmithing
  • stonemasonry
  • thatching
  • hand weaving
  • stained glass
  • green wood furniture-making

Trades we barely even think about today; obsolete, cottage industries.

Nevertheless, there are still people who dream of learning these trades, and that’s where Mastercrafts comes in. Each episode follows the trials & triumphs of 3 would-be students during an intense 6-week course at the hands of a master craftsman.

I’ve watched the series twice, and loved it both times. Because it turns out that learning to work iron and weave by hand are perfect corollaries to founding a startup.

Whoever cast the shows did a fantastic job. Each episode features a great mix of student personalities. And because it’s a kind of reality show — although a very refined, smoking-jacket-wearing reality show — those personalities are brought to the fore. All the while the students are shaping stone, hanging thatch, cutting class, spinning wood on a foot-operated lathe in a tent, or hammering hot iron, they’re being aggressively human. We see their best sides… and their worst.

Every flaw you’ll ever see in a “startup founder,” you’ll see play out in Mastercrafts. And if you sit & watch the whole series in one or two sittings, the patterns will leap out at you.

Green Wood

Bad behavior you’ll recognize

Here are some of the personality flaws I’ve spotted:

Several students in different episodes are obsessed with “expressing themselves” instead of following the brief (the job specification). They waste precious time in “creative” noodling instead of actually getting shit done.

Others indulge themselves in childish boredom and rebellion when it comes to the repetition of early stages of learning, instead of committing to the basics with all their hearts.

Several more wield perfectionism as a weapon against their own achievement… a weapon, and an excuse.

Several show a great deal of self-importance, unwarranted — they talk themselves up, they expect they’ll win, they treat the advice of the master as irrelevant, or they crumble at the slightest criticism.

Others engage in bitter self-denigration, unwarranted — fatalistically wailing, “I’ll never be able to do this,” when experiencing the simplest of setbacks. They want to throw in the towel at the first bump. And the second. And the third.

Finally, and perhaps most fatally, many of the students seem to have zero patience whatsoever. They expect to jump straight to results, straight to the fun stuff — the creative stuff. They don’t want to put in their dues. They think they’re special. So they stamp their foot petulantly when their shortcuts fail.

These students claim to want to master a craft, but they resist the very nature of “craftsmanship.” Even though, to even get the apprenticeship, they had to apply and interview and disrupt their lives for 6 weeks or more!


Wait? So the show sucks?

I’m sure I’m making the show sound like a kind of horror parade of bitchiness, but nothing could be further from the truth! All but a few of these divas are transformed over 6 weeks by the simple, honest, difficult work, and the rewards of making something real.

They find themselves achieving extraordinary things… just as soon as they decide to get over their crap.

This transformation is wonderful to watch. It’s LIFE.

And because it’s life — because, if you watch it, you’ll recognize your coworkers, your friends, and probably yourself — we can’t help but ask…

Why? Why is this the universal experience?

This is something I’ve spent half a lifetime pondering. Here’s my conclusion, in progress.

The reason the students resist the process every step of the way is because their entire self-concept is at risk:

They’ve never worked in an environment where results are all that matters. They’ve been coddled by parents, the school system, and their bosses. Their work is abstract; they rarely if ever see the end product of their work in use, they rarely if ever meet anyone who uses the product of their work in its final form.

Until now, they’ve always worked for approval, abstracted from results: the question has always been, Is this the answer the teacher wants? or Did the committee like it?not Is it true? and Did it help the customer?

It’s as if Galileo dropped his ball and feather from the top of the tower and, as they fell, sought to convince his audience by argument instead of simply looking.

This is the way most of us grow up to live, learn, and work. And it’s toxic.

Spoiled children

Have you ever engaged with a truly spoiled child?

It’s tempting to think of spoiled children as cold, calculating brats, calmly deploying tantrums as tools of manipulation. But if you’ve ever been a spoiled child, you’ll know this is far from the truth. When a spoiled child doesn’t get what he wants, he feels like the world is spinning completely out of control. He is a victim of his emotions (and he really feels as badly as he acts).

A spoiled child literally can’t cope with the reality where things don’t happen the way he expects. He’s held prisoner by his feelings.


And a coddled child literally can’t cope when his excuses don’t work.

When the world fails to deliver the expected result to a spoiled child, or a coddled child, they feel like their world is ending. Their egos react accordingly, to force external change, to protect their mental model of the universe.

Sound familiar?

When you live and work in an insulated life — divorced from the end result of your work — you are spoiled. You’re graded more on your ability to please and manage gatekeepers than your work product. Gatekeepers are human; humans can be persuaded to accept excuses. That doesn’t apply to me. I know, but. I’m not good at that. What I really want to do is. The client said. I tried my best.

Find yourself dropped into a reality-driven environment and blam! Your carefully groomed gatekeeper skills are useless. Your ego is at risk. And it fights back.

thatching 2

Stone doesn’t care if you’ve had a hard day. Iron won’t stay hotter longer just because you’re feeling hesitant with the hammer. If you don’t get your thatch right, it will leak, and that’s that. There’s no room for error.

It must feel terrifying.

Ah, you might be thinking, but in Mastercrafts, these students are being taught & graded by a master. The master is a human. They are trying to please the master. The master is a gatekeeper, right? The master will accept excuses.

In theory, yes. But in reality? Not these masters. There’s nothing more pragmatic than a blacksmith or thatcher in 2012. They’re pragmatic because they would never survive if they weren’t.

These masters know the score. They know they serve reality and no higher authority. They know reality can’t be denied. Whether that reality is the one where the fabric is flawed, the stone doesn’t measure level, the chair breaks, or the client won’t pay… their feelings don’t matter, their excuses won’t hold, and no amount of belief in their unique value will change that.

As the master blacksmith said, when the customer asks for “10 more of these” they’re going to be bloody upset when you come back with a newer, creative design and say “But this was more fun to make.” And then you don’t get paid.

This is the 21st century condition in a nutshell: We are abstracted people living abstracted lives. We don’t know how to live any other way. When we find ourselves suddenly butting up against hard, disintermediated reality, our egos cry out like spoiled children, and kick and scream and pitch fits.

That’s what happens when these abstracted people arrive in the workshops of the master craftswoman on Day 1, thinking,

“Gee, I work with fabric a lot. I could totally weave by hand on a loom. People hundreds of years ago did it. How hard could it be?”

The answer, of course, is incredibly fucking hard. Mindnumbingly hard. Weaving is like playing a pipe organ only with the opportunity to break and snap and knot and twist. Make a mistake, and there goes hours — maybe days! — of configuration alone.


Mastering a craft is HARD. It’s HARD, and their spoiled little inner brats thought it’d be easy. No wonder they rebel. No wonder they indulge their “perfectionism” or chafe bitterly at boredom.

It’s this same attitude which leads you to abandon your project at the first sign of trouble. The same attitude which causes you to noodle endlessly on features. To delay marketing; to believe that if you build it, they will come. Or, hell, to ever build it or ship it at all. To seek feedback from your peers instead of your customers… to spend more time catering to venture capitalists than the people who’ll pay for your product. To lavish your energy on “innovating” instead of mastering the basics.

Infinitely more endeavors have failed due to childish misbehavior than due to the market, the economy, the customers, or the competition.

Business is a reality engine:

Don’t work on the basics every day? You’ll fail.

Don’t market constantly? You’ll fail.

Don’t solve your customer’s pains? You’ll fail.

Don’t ship? Ha!

There you go: business in four sentences.

Business is truly a mastercraft. Attack it rigorously, honestly, and openly — and commit to mastering your spoiled inner child — and oh! the places you’ll go. Reality will become your fondest friend. Your driving questions will evolve from Does this make me sound smart? to Does this motivate a customer to buy? — from Gee, what do I feel like doing today? to How will I make my customers’ lives better today?

You’ll make things with your hands and your brain that will help people, people you get to meet, to talk to, to learn from. And you will feel rewarded.

Forging Metal

If you’re not in it for the long haul, though, don’t bother. If you’re too special to practice the basics, don’t bother. If you’d rather feel validated than achieve a result, don’t bother. If you’d rather defend the status quo than grow, give up now.

That is the decision you’ll face every day:

Do you just want to splash about in the kiddie pool and rebel at the first sign of seriousness…

Or do you want to craft a real business and a real life, with reality as your favorite ally? Do you want to surprise yourself with how much you can achieve?

Do you have what it takes to become a master craftsman?


Tired of being pandered to?

The philosophy and practice of craftsmanship doesn’t come out of nowhere — it comes from being around the right people, learning the right things, in the right environment, and practice, practice, practice. It’s almost impossible to do it alone.

I write an occasional newsletter about the hard work of bringing craftsmanship to business.

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  1. ben

    Wow, great post. This really gives me shit to think about as the parent of a new baby boy.

  2. Dave

    Hmmm, how in the world are we supposed to be able to watch this? I don’t get BBC HD. Is this sold as a DVD? Anyone have it uploaded anywhere?

  3. Sean King

    I feel like the current rash of “Learn How to Code in 2 Hours!!!” products only makes this problem worse. It takes so much more than watching 2 hours of video tutorials with a handful of quizzes to get even barely passable at the basics. The web improves reach, delivery and format of learning content but it is not a replacement for true “learning by doing” in the real world, or years of studying math before touching a line of code.

    I remember the roboticist Dennis Hong making this point–that the years upon years learning math, physics and other hard subjects are simply tools that will later come in useful when you are trying to solve really difficult challenges. But in this age of instant gratification for everything, so many people don’t have the patience to spend years learning the basics that they will never be equipped to solve the truly tough problems down the road.

    • Justin Dearing

      When I was in high school I purchased a few of those “learn how to code in 21 days or 24 hours” books. (We were much slower learners in the mid to late 90s) Looking back it was really a total lack of mentorship lead to me never getting very far in C++. I say this because while I’d be massively frustrated I wasn’t able to learn OLE Programs in 21 days, when I finally got to college, the first two CS classes were a breeze.

      The thing is, those books gave me a foundation, and I think i made it father than most without knowing where to seek help on the internet. In a way that was my “wax on/wax off” for C++ syntax so I could actually concentrate on what a pointer was in CS201, and what a linked list was in CS202.

      I’d equate those books with the interview process and 6 week commitment, and the next stage of my learning process as an extended version of the 6 weeks these people spend with the master craftsman. To a less motivated person those books would have made them pick another career besides programming. Of course the danger I think you see is the third group that uses these books and stops learning there. I’ve worked with my share of these people. However, I don’t think its the books or 2 hour videos that produce these people. People that learn just enough to be dangerous and stop will find away even if you take away their two hour videos and books.

    • @ommunist

      Oh, man. You can build a minimally viable product and ship it and take care about your customers without having a solid grasp on esotheric knowledge of how to divide octals in mind.

      • Lamin

        Mastery begets mastery. Years of getting good at maths or music or gardening will help with coding.

      • Greg Sudderth

        Many years of study begets many years of study. I had a chance to (pay like everyone else) to go to UCLA’s computer science program, (early 80’s) and learn how to program (math) in a pretend assembly language, that the instructor (now famous) would run in his head and grade. And, I’d be able to have a chance to program in FORTRAN to do (some math) assignments from the Engineering section for their stress analysis (self-paying slave labor). Instead, I joined the Extension, taught MBA students how to use Visicalc/Lotus, and got unlimited time on CP/M and IBM PC’s (apostrophe intentional) and a DEC VAX 750 running Berkeley UNIX!. I learned about Market Evolution, and realized “I’m in a market that is in the Wildcatter phase, woohoo!” So, I met people at UCLA’s MBA program, and got into my first three startups in four years. Better than studying for three years? Can’t say… I made the best decision at the time and it was only (maybe) right for me. You gotta do what you can do (me: program) and not do what you cannot do well (math for the sake of math) and get out there. Now I’m 50, have 33 years CONTINUOUS experience in CS, and have been in 11 startups, 5 as a founder, 3 as a CEO with a 2-and-1 record for the win. Pick up what you can do, go nuts on it, and try to meet really on-it people and learn all you can learn…half way to mars, flip over, fire retro jets and dedicate yourself to teaching others :) “Number one….engage.” That is all :)

  4. Lachlan

    This is an absolutely fantastic post. You touch on Freudian psychology with reference to ego but, more subtly, you explain much about the child aspect of transactional analysis, perhaps without knowing that it is indeed a field of psychology, oft used in recovery from situations of inadequate or abusive parenting. I love how well you tie in the psychology with the analogies of business and craftsmanship, it makes the concepts more relatable to the average person. You could add to this post by explaining further the psychology behind your analogies but my praise stands regardless.

  5. AkitaOnRails

    Thank you. Something had to be said about this “new generation” of emo programmers. Underachievers that think what they do are any special.

  6. David Bock

    There is another show I have learned similar themes from – Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. In short, Gordon Ramsay goes into failing restaurants, discovers why they are failing and tries to turn them around.

    the fault is often because of the egos of chefs and owners… people who want to try the same things over and over expecting different results. the process of watching Gordon tear down their individual egos and build back the ego at the level of the team is amazing.

    • @ommunist

      In particular case of Mr Ramsay, his own products often fail. I recall the story of shipping frozen food from Clapham favelas to his clients in restaurants. When it comes to restaurants, I strongly advise to learn cooking, and cook for yourself. And never use the microwave oven! You cant ship a decent soup from there.

      • maat

        microwaves make excellent custards though.

        dismissing a tool because it can be used badly is rarely a good idea. learn what that tool is good at and use it for that, don’t try to make it do things it’s not suited for.

  7. scarbom

    there’s something about this post that really pisses me off, and i’m not sure what it is exactly.

    on the one hand, it should be born in mind that this is not reality — these are story arcs created by producers, and they prey on the mythologies we all carry around. it’s framed as a transformation, but i suspect the ones who made something successful basically knew what they were doing when they walked in the door and were told to “act” like they didn’t in these same bad behavior tropes. yes, well-directed work is the way to success: no, most likely it’ll take longer than six weeks. and lastly, after a re-read, still not sure what this has to do with startups.

    • Amy

      Let’s be logical: this is the BBC we’re talking about, not Fox, and hand weaving, not marrying a millionaire bachelor.

      There’s no reason to believe the story arcs have been manipulated other than the usual asking people to redo things and practice what they say for the camera. And honestly it doesn’t even seem like they’ve been doing that.

      The flaws you see in the series don’t make sense as “plants” — because what most people believe is that confidence, creativity, etc, are GOOD things, but in the context of the show, it’s clear that they are bad.

  8. Dominik Wei-Fieg

    Most people will refrain from any action since it may fail. And failure will mean for them that either they we’re not good enough or that the world was against them. They want to be talented or even geniuses who will achieve everything without effort, thus they shun away from any effort. Acting up as perfectionist is simply a way to keep from delevering, since the delivered product will be judged, and judgment they cannot bear. It’s the fixed mindset at work, as Carol Dweck described it.

    • Brandon D.

      Very true Dominik. And that behavior isn’t limited to newbies either. There’s plenty of folks that figure out an approach that works and then stop testing other things. A friend of mine used to say — with a hint of derision — that “too many people with 10 years of experience actually have 1 year, repeated 10 times.” One of the most confining straightjackets in the world is Reputation.

  9. devGabriel

    Thank you Amy, that’s a very inspiring and true post. I see a lot of people talking too much and doing too little. Winners are doers.

    Thanks again Gabriel (:

  10. Steven

    Great post, I especially like the point you made about how we’re all spoiled kids, it’s true.. lol

    BTW, if you have the patience to learn (and don’t mind the heat) blacksmithing is fun. I had a friend years ago who worked as the blacksmith in the “ghost town” at a local amusement park and he taught me how to make horseshoes. I’m far from a “master craftsman” but since I like to work on cars, knowing how to reshape metal with heat and a hammer comes in handy a lot in my everyday life. :)

    • Amy

      I would love to try it sometime! I’ve already tried blowing glass and making mosaics and those were both a blast.

  11. Aldo Castaneda

    Inspiring post! I wish you, Seth Godin and Derek Sievers together to be my entrepreneurial mentors…keep me honest and focused on the hard and ultimately rewarding work. Business is a reality engine indeed! Thank you for this post, it has re-focused me…gotta go deal with my spoiled “inner child” now ;-)

    • Amy

      The good news is, that’s why we write: to help people. Obviously more people than we could help individually, personally. :)

  12. rhonin

    I don’t have the words now to do this post justice in terms of it’s elequence, honesty and ACCURACY. I will just say Thank you so much!

  13. Aleksey

    Amy, thank you very much for your brilliant thoughts in this post! They helped me to collect final parts of the puzzle I had to solve! Thank you very much!

  14. Jess

    As a craftswoman, I think this article is freaking brilliant, and really spoke to the switch I had to make in my own head when I went from working abstract jobs to working ‘with reality’.

  15. Paul Labrie

    I am looking forward to watching the master series you reference. As a glassblower of 35 years I have noticed a trend you referenced in your post with the customers who take my BYO (blow your own) class and visit the gallery. I offer them an opportunity to try blowing glass to see the time and effort needed to produce a piece, while excited they tend to want to make some item in my gallery that has taken hours to days to produce with all the years of experience I have to offer, and are often disappointed when I explain why they can’t, until they gather some molten glass from the furnace, it can be somewhat humbling. When I tell them I have been at glass for 35 years they look at me like its beyond their imagination to work at a job/craft for so long ( and many times I have been at it for longer than they have been alive). The other question/statement I get that really gets to the quick is “It must be nice to do glass and not have to go to work every day at a job” Most have no clue about the blood (literally), sweat, and tears. Thanks for posting this Amy, it made my day. Some people understand. Paul labrieglass.com

  16. Thou San

    Wow! This is great writing. Ouch! You just drive a knife into my ribs and killed another unicorn. Divided between blaming and thanking you but the pain is real. :D Glad I stumbled onto your sit. I think I will thank you after all – but driving that knife in… still hard to forgive! : )

  17. Brenda

    Hmm is anyone else having problems with the images on this blog loading? I’m trying to find out if its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog. Any responses would be greatly appreciated.

  18. Peter Jaros

    I love all of this, but to be fair, there’s something to be said for dabbling, splashing about in the kiddie pool. I’m not always trying to build a business. Sometimes I really am just playing. Dabbling’s how I explore new ideas and new parts of life. But I don’t expect to get very far just by dabbling.

    The challenge for me has been to dabble when I’m dabbling, and work when I’m working.

  19. additional reading

    You can certainly see your skills in the article you write. The sector hopes for even more passionate writers such as you who aren’t afraid to mention how they believe. Always follow your heart.

  20. C.C.Pardy Ms.Bs.

    After pushing Iron , for over 55 yrs. and now over 70 You have a fine grasp on building craftsmenship. After Stumbleing through Life a while, learning too look In – a looking Glass, and finding ones way !. As a Master Blacksmith, I love teaching !.

  21. Nima

    You did an excellent job with this article–damn excellent. The message, the delivery, the tone, it’s so real… And writing software IS a craft, and I feel like, more so than in any of these other crafts, these traps of entitlement, and of obsessively wanting to express oneself, feeling spoiled (your definition of it), pleasing a product manager, instead of feeling the actual feedback (coming from users) and the consequences of your work, tinkering with cool new tools at the expense of delivering on time… all of it. It’s so prevalent among talented and unhardened engineers in their twenties. To anyone that can reflect on this without the interference of an ego, it serves as a polished mirror into which they may look into and see what mental models and behaviors need reshaping. I will certainly look into this reality series. Thank you, Amy.


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