Mastery and Architecting

To launch this series of posts, I thought it would be useful to convene a discussion of the role of the architect and mastery.

Talking about Conceptual Architecture several years ago, Dana Bredemeyer relayed the story of the Master Butcher. It struck me forcibly as a story that speaks to mastery, and architecting. The imagery is rather gruesome, but we can take that in our stride, hopefully.

There are several translations of the story of the Master Butcher from Chaung Tzu. Here is one version:

‘Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. As every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee — zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.

“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wen-hui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”

Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now — now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and following things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

“A good cook changes his knife once a year — because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month — because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room — more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.

“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until — flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”

“Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!”’

Translated by Burton Watson
(Chuang Tzu: The Basic Writings, 1964)

Another version ends:

Duke Wen Hui said: “Excellent!
I listen to your words,
And learn a principle of life.”
– from Carving Up an Ox

A principle of life indeed. But let us focus on what we learn from this story as it relates to being an architect.

Debrief: Firstly, thanks to Peter, Gene and Leo for engaging in the discussion — great points all! This story and the discussion serves as a prelude to an exploration we’ll unfold in this blog, of what it means to be an architect who achieves mastery in architecting. Which saves me a books-worth of debriefing in this moment! And that in turn, picks up a key theme introduced in the story, that will sound through much to come — namely, the ongoing background consideration of “what, at this extraordinary moment is the most important thing for me to be thinking of” (Bucky Fuller, by way of Dana Bredemeyer). From this story: When we hit a complicated spot, we notice, and pay careful, concerted attention. The more experience we have with systems design, the more complexity we can take on with confidence (not bravado and arrogance, mind) because we’ve developed not just judgement, but a keen sensibility that tunes between active, self-conscious judgment and a more intuitive rhythmic flow or “dance” as we find the natural structure of the system.

10 thoughts on “Mastery and Architecting

  1. Hi Ruth,

    So mastery is gained by lots of practice which is needed to rewire your brain so that it can recognize and react to certain patterns without conscious thinking?

    If that is true, how can somebody become a master in our increasingly faster changing world? And is it possible for a non-specialist or a generalist like an architect to become a true master who can act without conscious thinking?

    BTW It is nice to have a place to discuss your traces

  2. Peter,

    My take on the story is that mastery was obtained by learning to work with the material rather than against it. Ting certainly didn’t abandon thinking (“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until — flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground.”), he merely reserved his skill for where it was needed. By saving the “fancy stuff” for where it was needed, he avoided dulling the blade of his knife.

  3. Gene,

    I see the statement “now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes” as a form of unconscious thinking like chess grandmasters use to recognize patterns which enable them to choose the right move very very fast (without conscious thinking like calculating lots of moves like chess computers do).
    A more recent little story than the above Cook Ting one, told in 2006 by the Scientific American in an article called The Expert Mind*, provides a great example of this kind of unconscious thinking by quoting a great chess player: “The year is 1909, the man is José Raúl Capablanca of Cuba, and the result is a whitewash: 28 wins in as many games. The exhibition was part of a tour in which Capablanca won 168 games in a row. How did he play so well, so quickly? And how far ahead could he calculate under such constraints? “I see only one move ahead,” Capablanca is said to have answered, “but it is always the correct one.”"

    The Expert Mind can be read on:

    • We have all experienced the “unconscious thinking” when we drive a familiar route. How many times have you arrived at your destination and then wondered how you got there safely? We must have done everything correctly as we arrived safely. (now did we cause others grief or issues that we were unaware of?? that is the question).

  4. Peter,

    For the places that aren’t “complicated”, unconscious thinking may come into play to some extent. However, the ability to switch to active analysis is clearly described in the story. Knowing how and when to move from one to the other along with the wisdom to work with your materials instead of against them is where (IMHO) the mastery lies.

  5. Gene,

    I totally agree! And this is a good moment to bring up my checklist obsession :-)
    Cook Ting uses a simple checklist to switch from unconscious thinking to active analysis:

    - is this a complicated place [check]
    - size up the difficulties [check]
    - watch out and be careful [double-check]
    - keep my eyes on what I’m doing [check]
    - work very slowly [check]

  6. Peter,

    The most important question is the first you propose. Determining the correct answer is what requires years of experience and even failure. In the story, we see Cook Ting after 19 years of experience. What would his story be at the 5, 10 and 15 year mark? I am interested in maturity models and believe the checklists change with experience (successes and even more importantly failures).

    Thanks, Leo

  7. Pingback: Learning to See | Requisite Variety

  8. Mastery prompts thoughts about …

    Master and apprentice – and what we gain from mentoring and coaching

    The story of seeking to capture a civil engineer’s knowledge before he retired, asking question after question about how and why – and capturing it in a “database” for others to draw upon. And then they asked how do you know x,y,z? And he said, I pick up some soil, rub it between my fingers and I can tell. That could not be captured in their database!!

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