Aristotle’s crafty advice on skills in the workplace – and everywhere else in life

“For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize.” – Aristotle (Metaphysics, Part II)

When someone needs to play the flute, it should be the best flute-player. Aristotle’s craft analogy helps us understand our virtues much like how we achieve skills, be them for the workplace or for life. The Greek philosopher probably didn’t know much about social media or TED Talks. But there’s a thing or two he can teach about these skills.

We like to talk about skills. We emphasize workforce skills such as communication and presentation. Much of the liberal arts education prizes skills as rewards for students. This could be verbal skills by studying history or deductive skills through mathematics. And more vocational training might include specific technical skills. And, in other places, there are life skills – empathy, decision-making, or whatever you want to learn. Every walk of life seems to be a skill – a way to improve ourselves.

These skills we gain through practice, be it learning from bad decisions or straight out of intuition, are like to the way we become better people. We treat life as though our skills are a game – a craft. Over time gaining more experience honing our skills. Like an athlete at a training ground or a writer on a blog, everything is an opportunity to learn.

Aristotle might know a thing or two about learning to better ourselves – including bettering our morals. In his work “Nichomachean Ethics”, he explained that one must get all virtues in due proportion with one another. This was to pursue the chief good, Eudaemonia.

Eudaemonia is a sort of practical wisdom. It’s how we hold our virtues and goods in due proportion with one another. As we experience life, we learn the appropriate methods, conditions, and amounts of virtues. There’s a right and wrong time to be courageous, an appropriate amount of compassion to be had, and various ways to be patient. The philosopher explained that this sort of practice with virtues is much like learning a craft, such as playing a violin or building a boat. If we use analyze these crafts in the similar vein of skills, the way we practice skills may help us understand how we become better human beings.

A very unique set of skills.

Aristotle’s craft analogy has two parts. First, virtue and crafts alike in that one learns both of them through practicing or doing them. We learn how to be courageous through acting the way a courageous person would act, and one learns how to make a violin through the act of making a violin. When someone acts the way a courageous person would act, then he or she establishes rules or criteria under which one should be courageous. The person might exercise a specific amount of courage in certain situations, and, in other situations, not show courage at all. By an appropriate exercising virtues, we get a practical understanding of them.

Through this, we master the virtue and learn how to be courageous. And, to learn how to make a violin, one must practice the act of violin-making.

The second part is that mastering the virtue or craft requires an understanding of why that action is the right one to perform. When a courageous person is courageous, he or she must understand the ways in which that courageous act is the right one to perform. The courageous act has its value of being the courageous act intrinsically. But, in these reflective dimensions of virtue, the courageous person must understand why that act is virtuous.

The act may be a courageous act because it is under a certain reason, such as choosing to take a stand against racism in a racist society. The agent may weigh attitudes of others in their perception of the agent as a courageous person. Or the agent may judge him/herself as courageous. The person doesn’t have to know the exact role of virtues in the most intricate, detailed sense to be a virtuous person. And the knowledge of the virtues itself doesn’t make one a virtuous person.

Rather, the person becomes virtuous by exercising virtues appropriately. When one performs an action when making a violin, he or she must understand how that action is correct or necessary for making a violin. There might be a certain tightness of the string necessary or there might be a specific type of wood that produces the unique sound. Those are reasons why certain actions are necessary for violin-making, just as there are reasons a virtuous act is virtuous.

The analogy is not without limitations. It might seem as though virtues are exactly like crafts. But Aristotle recognized that the craft analogy does not hold in every way. The craft-maker’s can complete individual tasks while the virtuous person’s virtues are never “completed.” The process of making a violin ends when one stops making a violin, but he or she is still a violin-maker. But when a virtuous person stops acting courageously, the act is over. The individual is no longer courageous. Hence, that person is no longer a virtuous person). To maintain the status of being a craft-maker, one doesn’t have to constantly perform the craft. But to maintain a certain virtue, one must keep performing that virtuous act in the ways that are appropriate.

Joseph de Ribera

The actions of making are craft are only instrumental toward the end goal of completing the craft. Virtues are not only instrumental to achieving eudaemonia, but have intrinsic value as well. When one carves wood to make a violin, one does so as a means to have the appropriate wood. When one is courageous, it’s instrumental to bring about the end of achieving a chief good. But there it is also worthy to pursue that act in itself.

These similarities and differences give us a more precise view on the skills in life. We want to learn skills, professional or not, the same way we want to become good human beings. This analysis of how those professional skills, like communication, decision-making, or problem-solving, with the way we understand virtues or crafts can help us become better workers, too.

Speaking of crafts, Google’s aptly-named Project Aristotle studied optimal working conditions. It found that an individual’s ability to take risk without fear of judgement from peers was the most important condition for success. We might interpret this as a virtue of courage, tenacity, confidence, or something else. If we look at it, Google might enjoy an Aristotelean analysis of the nuances of the skill.

We need to turn back to Aristotle to understand our skill-centered rhetoric. We need a sharper, less ambiguous distinction between our own morals and our skills. These similarities and limitations can give a framework for what sort of skills we need in life – and how to meet them. Only then will we attain Eudaemonia.

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