CRAFTSMANSHIP Magazine: The Quest for Excellence is a publication that dives deep into the topic of excellence and the “ethos of craftsmanship.” It explores individuals who have mastered their particular craft and whose lives illuminate “the architecture of excellence.”
Craftsmanship Magazine caught my eye after I happened to come across a few of its articles on organic farming…including an in-depth profile about an organic farm in Sebastopol, California, that grosses more than $100,000 an acre by harvesting vegetables. (Apparently this is a huge figure in the world of urban farming.)
There was also an interesting piece calling out what it really takes (farming-wise) to make the organic salads you’ve been eating.
“Wow,” I thought, “this magazine goes deep.”
Intrigued, I reached out to Todd Oppenheimer, the founding editor and publisher of Craftsmanship. A journalist for more than three decades, Todd has written for many prominent publications, including The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. He’s also the author of The Flickering Mind: Saving Education from the False Promise of Technology.
In the following interview, Todd shares his insights on what excellence is, why we should strive for it, and the unsavory consequences of NOT striving for excellence. Plus, he explains what organic farmers must do to increase the long-term health of our land, wildlife, and earth as a whole. (Unbeknownst to many consumers, most organic farms are actually destructive to the earth, in either small or large ways.)
In our fast-paced world, quality of life has eroded for human beings on numerous fronts, and the pursuit of excellence is sorely needed to restore it. Hopefully this interview will re-inspire you to seek excellence in all areas of your life and business.
ML #1: Describe your own personal journey in striving for excellence. Where did you start out, compared to where you are now?
Todd Oppenheimer: Like many people, I bounced around a little professionally. I began my professional life as an actor in New York City; in fact, a good bit of my spending money came from performing mime for several years on the streets with Robin Williams.
After 5 years in the theater, I grew restless and wanted to make my own intellectual mark on the world instead of just acting out the statements made by others. So I returned to college (which I had not finished), tried playwriting, then fiction, and then, on a friend’s suggestion, stumbled into the offices of the campus newspaper. This was UC Berkeley, and in the 1970s, which is when I was there, Berkeley was a very lively place. The buzz in the newsroom was palpable, and in about 5 minutes I knew I had met my future.
Having been out of college for so long, I was then 25 years old, but I was a complete political neophile. (I didn’t even know the difference was between a U.S. senator and a state senator; nor did I know how to type.) All of this meant that I had a lot of catching up to do. Which inspired me to prove myself all the more.
ML #2: What made you so interested in the topic of excellence that you decided to devote an entire magazine to the study of it?
Todd Oppenheimer: It’s been my perception for years that the quality in our daily lives has been slowly eroded by a creeping march toward mediocrity. All one need do is look at the trends toward mass production, of both food and merchandise, and you can see it almost everywhere. Items cost more but break or wear out more frequently (or, in the case of computer technology, need upgrading before it’s mechanically necessary, sometimes before you’ve mastered the device you have).
This made me concerned that we as a society were becoming like the proverbial frog in boiling water — slowly stewing in an increasingly deadly environment without our even realizing it. In the midst of these sorry trends, there are many fine craftsmen and craftswomen fighting in relative obscurity against these forces of mediocrity. So it seemed only fitting to investigate the values that guide their work and their lives, and the obstacles they face — in hopes that I might discover lessons that could help the rest of us.
ML #3: What do you believe are the key signs of excellence in a person, a business, and any endeavor?
Todd Oppenheimer: Reliability; an open mind; an eye for detail; a capacity for hard work, perhaps even the thirst for it; the personal confidence to admit what you don’t know, and the desire to learn it.
ML #4: In your experience having written for many prominent publications over the years, what do believe inspires certain human beings to strive for excellence?
Todd Oppenheimer: Great question. We have a saying in the journalism business: you can teach the basics of reporting and writing, but you can’t teach someone to care about facts. A budding journalist can only come upon that passion naturally. I suspect it’s probably the same for the pursuit of excellence.
Then again, if someone has never seen what true excellence looks like, or seen it only rarely, they might miss that moment of inspiration that would motivate them. We as humans are born to strive, to pit ourselves against the world’s challenges. But we do so only if we see an opportunity that a) excites us; and b) we believe we can do. For many people, those opportunities are rare, so we as a society have a responsibility to fill the world with as many of them as we can.
ML #5: Why is it important to revive the principles of excellence in today’s “frenetic, high-tech world”?
Todd Oppenheimer: For all of the reasons I’ve discussed thus far. Calmness of thought, and a capacity to look deeply are in increasingly short supply in today’s world, where our computerized devices split our attention every day — nay, every hour, sometimes every minute. Don’t get me wrong, those devices embody their own excellence and sense of craftsmanship. But they also undermine it once we the users get hold of them.
So we each need to find our own sanctuaries where the focused principles of excellence that have sustained humanity’s creativity for millennia can be protected, and expanded. Ideally, these principles would be practiced and sustained through things we make with our own hands — an idea fast regaining currency, given that scientists are just now finding that this simple act can greatly help a person’s sense of well-being.
ML #6: Who are a few of your favorite role models demonstrating excellence? Why do you look up to them?
Todd Oppenheimer: Well, my role models are all writers and editors I have worked with — James Fallows and William Whitworth of The Atlantic Monthly; William Greider, formerly of The Washington Post and now with The Nation magazine; Steve Schewel and Katherine Fulton, formerly of The Independent, an uncommonly fine weekly newspaper in Durham, North Carolina.
Each of these individuals handled the battles that are journalism’s stock and trade with unusual wisdom and dignity. They never pulled any punches, but they didn’t take cheap shots either.
ML #7: What is one piece of writing you’ve published that you personally find to be excellent? What was it about that piece that satisfied you?
Todd Oppenheimer: I suppose my favorite of the writing I’ve done is a profile I wrote in 2008 for The New Yorker magazine, entitled “Sharper: Bob Kramer and the secret lives of knives.” It was my first experience exploring a complex subject through the device of a personal profile, and I was surprised to discover the depth that this approach opens up for a writer, and how much fun the journey and the ultimate composition can be.
Writing a profile also felt very natural to me, as though I had suddenly found my journalistic comfort zone. That experience definitely inspired the creation of my own publication, Craftsmanship Magazine, which I launched in January, 2015. Partly on The New Yorker’s inspiration, in-depth profiles have become a key part of what we do as well — in fact, our first story was an expansion of my story about the knife maker, which can be found on our website now under the title, “The Kitchen Bladesmith.”
ML #8: Regarding the organic industry as a whole, what are your thoughts on the way things currently are? What needs to change?
Todd Oppenheimer: As time goes on — and as the world’s ecological pressures increase — we are going to have to draw much finer distinctions in the food world. Already, it’s not enough to simply say organic food is the good stuff, and conventionally grown food is not.
As our own recent story, “The Drought Fighter,” took pains to point out, many organic farms are incredibly destructive — to the land, to the wildlife on and around the land, and to our diminishing water supplies. Just because they don’t use sprays that are considered chemical by the USDA doesn’t mean they are harmless; in fact, there are 20 different “organically derived” chemicals that the USDA permits organic farmers to use as pesticides, which are every bit as destructive as anything synthetic that Monsanto puts out.
More important, farmers almost everywhere face two main challenges that have little to do with whether they use organic or non-organic pesticides and herbicides:
- first, revive soil health on agricultural lands that have been abused for centuries;
- and second, grow good food here, in the midst of conditions that are only going to get hotter and drier.
That requires a sea change in which crops the consumer market demands, and thus what farmers grow; and a new approach to cultivation that puts soil health first and yield second. Ironically, just based on the reporting we’ve done at Craftsmanship Magazine, it appears that when farmers choose to emphasize soil health — and pursue the composting, intercropping, and mulching practices that such an emphasis requires — healthy yields almost always follow.
ML #9: And finally…as human beings, what consequences do we ultimately face if we fail to strive for excellence?
Todd Oppenheimer: In a word, mediocrity — not just of the work one does and the products one creates, but also mediocrity of the soul. Just the act of striving for excellence enlivens who we are, thereby expanding any enlightenment we might pass on to future generations. Taking the opposite course — not striving — passes on an implicit belief that we are a small and inconsequential people, born to slowly use up the world’s resources instead of improve them.