I've been thinking about how we know things (and the difference between theory and practice and how one influences the other) especially this week after reading a thread on reddit about photo-journalism.
In it, the author makes some claims, unwelcome by those who secretly believe them to be true, such as, “It's more about equipment than we'd like to admit”. It's an interesting discussion with some great points, and this post isn't a response to the core sentiments expressed there. It simply inspired me to write about the different kinds of knowledge in all professions.
My wife is a photographer, so I showed her the discussion on reddit and listened to her take on it.
Here are some things true of her:
She studied photography in college.
She has nice cameras and lenses.
She has shot many weddings.
Which of these do you think is the biggest factor in separating her from other photographers?
Many people would say it's the second thing. The idea is that technology is so good now, and so many people are “getting into it”, that having really great cameras and lenses actually makes the biggest difference between photographers.
Now let's ask a slightly different question. Which of the three things has the greatest influence on her skill as a photographer? Surely the answer is number 3; her experience gained by practicing her craft has contributed the most to her skill. That isn't to say that theory and tools aren't important. It's just that the actual practice of a craft is what hones skills.
Of course, it's absolutely possible to reach plateaus, particularly when we simply do the same thing for every project, never asking why or how questions like, “Why am I doing it this way?” or “How can I do this better?” Our work becomes simply rote practice. Delving more into theory actually helps us ask questions that change our work. Being a part of professional groups where you can talk to others in your industry, and simply using the Internet to follow what others are saying and doing, even taking the time to review basic concepts of your craft, each of these can inspire us to excel.
Similarly, new and better tools - as in the case of photography, better cameras and lenses - excite us and push us to practice. There is nothing wrong there, only right, especially when we understand that those tools represent potential and not mastery itself.
As in all things, it's about balance. You can have all the theoretical knowledge in the world, and absolutely no experience. And you can have a ton of experience doing something the same way every day, and be completely bored and stuck and unmotivated.
A healthy awareness of the difference between theoretical and experiential knowledge has encouraged me to continue studying and practicing my craft. When it's just either/or, the product suffers, and so does personal satisfaction and motivation. But when theory and practice are fuel for each other, then you're on the path to mastery.
Dinner time at our house. My son, Jesse, is in his high-chair and I'm feeding him bits of food. Alena is in the kitchen cooking one of her signature dishes–the one we call “chardonnay chicken”. Suddenly, like sunlight bursting into a dark cave, a beautiful aroma fills the room. It's the fresh garlic and chardonnay hitting the hot pan. That smell. “This is as good as actually eating the meal,” I say.
Smelling is a seldom thought about part of tasting. Sadly, we Americans eat so fast that we often forget to even taste let alone smell. But this was not one of those times. I smell that sweet smell, and savor every bite of the meal.
In my last article, “What do customers buy?” I talked about how customers buy results. And while our great joy and sense of pride comes from providing solutions, that doesn't mean we shouldn't revel in the process. Just like enjoying the smell of a meal being cooked, we should enjoy our work as we do it. If we don't, how good is it the result going to be?
I'll cut to the chase here. If you're doing it right, customers buy results, not your costs and not your time. Took me a while to figure that out. Or maybe I always knew it, but it wasn't reflected in how I actually worked or billed my clients. That led to a brutal case of burnout, and it got me asking the big questions like, “Why am I doing what I'm doing?”
John Cusack as Llyod Dobler:
I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don't want to do that. Video
I remember this scene resonating with me a lot as a young man, particularly as I was leaving High School and entering the work force. I very much did not want to live in my fathers world. The one where you work a job that you mostly loathe, that takes up the great majority of your time, for a family that you rarely see, for 40+ years. And then they give you a watch or something. But the point was, you provided for your family. Your happiness was not a present concern; it's post-poned. You know, for the future. For the weekend, or, to a greater degree, for retirement. But by then you're too beat down to really enjoy it.
Well, it turns out that we aren't as omniscient as we presumed as teenagers. But the core intuition remains true: we all want to do something authentic and significant, and that's actually possible. Some get stuck and give up on that dream. It's easy to simply eat, sleep, work, and let the cable tv wash over us. But some of us are stubborn enough to keep chasing the dream.
When I started my own business, I just wanted to be the best maker-of-websites that I possibly could. I wanted to find real people with unique challenges and then build solutions for them. However, assuming the wrong business model and choosing the wrong pricing strategy left me a peddler of time rather than a provider of solutions.
I was bewildered. On one hand, I'd managed to avoid the lack of autonomy and purpose that you generally find in jobs working “for someone else”. And I'd also found occasional satisfaction in my pursuit of mastery. On the other hand, I landed directly in a special kind of monotony and burnout. Turns out, it was all by my own design. I was behaving as if two dangerously false assumptions were true.
First, I assumed that my customers should care about my costs and the amount of time I spent doing the work. They should not.
In the beginning, it was kind of fun to think about how much money I wanted to make in a year, estimate all my costs, and then do the math to figure out what I needed to make in a month, a day, and an hour. It was also fun to spend the first few months keeping track of everything I did, categorizing it, and separating “billable” from non-billable things. I mean, it was interesting to know how long it took me to complete a certain kind of task. But in the end, all of that bean counting is just dreadful and unfulfilling. But most importantly, it doesn't mean a damn thing to the customer. And that's the key insight: how much time I spend on something does not determine how valuable it is to the customer.
Second, I assumed that a given service should be priced the same regardless of context. Insert a million face-palms here.
I mean, why assume that a given service has the same value to client x as it does to client y? Or even that a given service is as valuable to the same client in one context as another? This bad assumption lead to overcharging in a few cases, and undercharging in even more.
After studying it for a while, I learned that there are many reasons why a time or cost-based pricing strategy for professional services is completely wrong-headed. And as in most learning, I've realized just how much I don't know, and how much further I have to go.
My shedding of the above false assumptions has helped clarify why I do what I do, and it has lead me to a much more fulfilled professional life. And importantly, it has increased the value of what my customer buys. Because what he buys isn't time. It's results. It's solutions to clearly defined problems. And that has real value.