A master carpenter after a long and fruitful career decided to retire and take up a lifelong ambition to become an economist. No longer needing his tools he sold them on eBay. With these tools he had built marvelous cabinets of sublime beauty; produced toys, musical pieces and whole houses.
The entrepreneur who bought his tools on eBay knew the reputation of the Master and had heard people rave about the beauty, utility and overall workmanship of his products. He rented out the tools to others so they could boast of using the tools of the master. He then had the tools duplicated and sold them with a certificate. Anyone who bought those tools could claim to be using the tools of the master. And the expectation was that they would produce masterpieces on a par with the Master’s. Alas, it did not work out that way.
Anyone reading this knows that a carpenter no matter how good his tools cannot produce great work unless he spends years training with another master. Yet in management it is assumed that a certificate, a degree or a black belt somehow confers that magic ingredient.
Some Special Masters
Some people do not believe there is any special knowledge, skill or smarts beyond the tools and some kind of mastery of the tools. One historical example clearly elucidates the difference that profound mastery can make. The best violins are generally considered those made by two eighteenth-century masters of Cremona, Italy: Antonio Stradivari and Guiseppe Guarneri del Gesu. Violins made by these two masters are considered the best in the world and violinist pay tens of thousands of dollars to own and play one. Others have tried to duplicate their efforts yet they still fall short.
Some people make an excellent livelihood just cleaning and tuning these masterworks. In one case, however, a craftsman noticed a small bump in the wood on the inside of one of these violins and sanded it down—thinking that would improve the sound. The violin never sounded the same again. Try as he might to restore the richness of the sound to the instrument he could not.
If you had all of their tools, no matter how hard you tried you could not duplicate the rich sounds of the violins created by the two eighteenth century masters. You could build violins that looked identical; you can build violins that sound quite good, but not as good. Their violins have been taken apart and examined for over two hundred years, and no one yet knows how to make violins that match their richness of sound.
If you had trained with one of these masters you would be able to build a violin like they had already made. But these two masters were constantly experimenting and improving throughout their lives. They did not start out as preeminent violin masters, they became. And to keep growing and keep improving requires more than supreme craftsmanship and knowledge of what worked in the past. What are some of the areas of knowledge that these two had mastered? They must have understood and had an appreciation for music, the theory of music, and what we today call acoustics and vibrations. They understood materials such as wood, egg yolks and various others. They must have had some understanding of chemistry, tools and probably other areas that I would be hard pressed to name. And they were able to understand how all of these work together as a system to create a great violin. With this systemic appreciation of the various areas of knowledge they not only created great violins but kept experimenting and producing different and unique, timeless violins that lasted for centuries, which even today cannot be matched.
Tools by themselves, of course, are important. One difference between humans and the great apes is our ability to build tools of unmatched utility, complexity and specificity. And if you are competing against chimpanzees, tools by themselves may be sufficient. But for those who wish to improve the condition of humankind something more is required.
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