The price you pay to be the best in your field (and why robots won’t replace you)

Are you the best at what you do?

Not just mediocre. Not like everyone else.

Truly the best.

The one who commands the highest fee because you deliver the highest value.

The top 5% of people in their field know: there is a price to get there.

The question is: are you willing to pay it?

There is no shortcut to craft.

In a world moving rapidly toward complete automation, discussion of craft has been relegated to the world of Etsy, woodworking and beer. The thing is, craft still matters in business. It is the single differentiator between the originals and the knockoffs.

A recent article on the robot revolution in Fast Company points out that while the rest of the auto industry is racing toward robotics — for example, Elon Musk’s “machine that builds the machine” — Toyota is reinvesting in human craftsmanship. In Toyota’s New Global Architecture framework, robots are not the strategic centerpiece, but rather facilitators.

The significance of Toyota reinvesting in craftsmanship is its place as leader in the market. The recent appointment of Mitsuru Kawai as head of global manufacturing is also noteworthy because of his history. He’s been with the company for 52 years and is a direct link to Taiichi Ohno who authored concepts like kaizen and lean manufacturing. Kawai is focused on making use of human skills and wisdom. Toyota is simplifying automation. Fast Company quotes Kawai as saying:

Humans should produce goods manually and make the process as simple as possible. Then when the process is thoroughly simplified, machines can take over. But rather than gigantic multi-function robots, we should use equipment that is adept at single simple purposes.

If the world’s leader in automobile manufacturing is rethinking human craftsmanship, how long until others follow suit? And what does that mean for entrepreneurs, employees and those of us leading companies?

Scale is not the enemy of craft.

When we visualize big business, we usually have in mind cubicle farms and assembly lines. Work that is the antithesis of craft. Seth Godin, in his book, Linchpin writes,

The essence of mass production is that every part is interchangeable… It only follows then, that as you eliminate the skilled worker, the finisher, the custom-part maker, then you also save money on wages as you build a company that’s easy to scale. In other words, first you have interchangeable parts, then you have interchangeable workers. By 1925, the die was cast. The goal was to hire the lowest-skilled laborer possible, at the lowest possible wage. To do anything else was financial suicide.

That’s the labor market we were trained for.

We get a steady stream of applicants who believe this is the world. They have mediocre qualifications and a phone interview quickly shows that their interest is in trading time for a paycheck.

But for companies at the top of their field, that isn’t enough. We need craftsmen. Those who are truly good at what they do.

Scale is a challenge — not because skilled craftsmen aren’t needed in large firms, but because they are distinctly hard to find. It’s no wonder we invest in automation. Lower-level skills have to be streamlined to free up people for craft.

As I look at my firm and what we do, and I look to our people with craft, I know we must leverage automation, data analytics, and robotics to help them get to where they want to go. The really good people will use these tools to animate and energize craft rather than replacing it. But for those who aren’t craftsmen — for the ones who settle for being an interchangeable part in a machine — it is a matter of time before they are replaced.

Passion isn’t marketable. Mastery is.

I’m weary of seeing motivational posts about “passion” being the difference between those who succeed and those who don’t. It simply isn’t real. Cal Newport writes in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, “Don’t follow your passion; rather let it follow you in your quest to become.”

Many people have passion in terms of a deep feeling about something, but few let it drive them to making the incremental daily choices about how they invest their personal resources to become truly world class.

How do you become so good they can’t ignore you? The 10,000-hour rule made famous in Malcom Gladwell’s book, Outliers, is often quoted, but it’s more than that. It isn’t enough to have 10,000 hours of experience. It has to be experience focused on making you better. There is a single-mindedness of focus as you learn, try, practice, and push yourself to get to the next level.

I had the opportunity to hear Michelle Cowan speak at InfoComm (now Avixa) in Melbourne. All Cowan ever wanted to do was to be a coach for the AFL. The idea of a young Australian girl deciding she wanted to coach in the AFL is no different than a young American girl deciding she wants to coach in the NFL. There were barriers to be broken. Barriers that passion would have never been enough to break.

At 17, Cowan applied to become a coach. Only two teams agreed to speak with her. In that interview, she revealed just how much she understood about football strategy. She’d spent her young life studying and making notes on it. While others were watching television, she was reviewing games. She was given a volunteer position as a WA-based scout. It wasn’t exactly what she was after, but it was an opportunity to gain more knowledge — so she grabbed it.

According to Perth Now, she was appointed midfield coach at the WAFL club West Perth in 2004, and later held the same position for the South Fremantle Bulldogs. In 2013 she was appointed head coach of the Melbourne Demons women’s team before moving to a role with the men’s team. After a season at Melbourne, she was named AFL Football Woman of the Year.

For Michelle Cowan, natural talent and passion didn’t equal a job as an AFL coach. She did the hard-day-to-day work incrementally over years, sacrificing to get the experience needed to become one of the best.

It isn’t enough to want to be good at something. You have to actually get good.

Craftsmanship has a price tag. And its steep.

If it were easy, everyone would be a craftsman. They would be ubiquitous.

But they aren’t. Why?

Because most find the price tag too high.

Jon Morrow writes, “When I decided to become an entrepreneur, I bought the biographies of Michael Dell, Richard Branson, and dozens of others. As I read through their stories, I paid special attention to what they had to give up to get to where they are. I didn’t care about the rewards. I didn’t care about the little tips and strategies they used. I cared about the sacrifices.”

I don’t know any other way to become truly good at something than to allocate all of your heart, soul, mind and strength toward it. Saying “yes” to mastery of a craft requires a singleness of purpose.

You have an invincible power of choice on how you use your personal (and limited) resources of time and energy. You can dilute them over many things or invest in the one, big thing.

You can become the craftsman that everyone else pursues.

You can experience the satisfaction of doing something that you are so skilled at doing that it releases boundless energy. You can enjoy that sense that you are doing what you are meant to do because you are one of the few who can do it.

This doesn’t happen without intention and effort.

You have to choose it, and then be willing to sacrifice to get it.

Not everyone is willing to pay the price. But my guess is that if you are reading this article, you just might be one of the ones who are.

Figure out what you are going to give up and proactively engage the process of getting better.

Because at the end of the day, skilled craftsmen never have to fear being replaced by robots. Automation is just another tool to further their craft and art.

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