It happened one day in the kitchen when our six-year-old daughter asked one of those big life questions like, “where do babies come from?” or something equally precocious.
Like all smart fathers, I quickly pulled a quote from a Disney character, and replied with a convincing smile.
“Give me a break Dad”, was the bullet I got back. “I’m not a little kid anymore. I’m six!”
There she stood. Waiting for a real answer which I did not have at the time. It stuck in my gut. I realized this little human being in the kitchen was waking up, and asking real questions. Her mind was looking for real information that she would use to successfully navigate the world, or not.
The deeper I looked the more apparent it became that I did not possess the quality answers she needed, and I wanted to give her.
Am I only to be a passive conduit I thought, for passing along bits and pieces of randomly gathered memories from my childhood, the advice of friends and family, or the current best-seller on parenting by Drs. X,Y, & Z, just because a lot of people are buying it? Is this the ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ thing? And where did the ‘village’ learn its skills to raise children? Shall I rely upon the wisdom of the crowd? Maybe, maybe not.
No. Someone out there must have faced this already and figured out a system, method, or structure that anyone can use to organize a curriculum of quality content about any life skill subject, from sources we choose, that can be accessed by us and our kids as the need arises.
Why not? It sounds so logical I thought. Just like in school, where certain core subjects are organized in a curriculum and progressively learned in increasing levels of complexity. Perhaps there already exists a structured curriculum to manage all the other subjects she would need to know, not usually included in school curricula.
The more I looked, I discovered a ton of content out there, including a few attempts going back a century or more, to organize a life skills curriculum. But upon studying them, the content either supported a particular world view they considered ‘correct’, or the subject categories were so numerous and disconnected, it was enough to make your head spin.
The world and its contents appeared to be organized more like the card catalog to the Library of Congress, than the simplified school curriculum I envisioned. I certainly was not going to bring the Library of Congress to the dinner table. Or it would be my last supper.
The Five Elements
Eventually, after much stewing over the idea on exceptionally long international flights I had to endure for my job, I arrived at a simple structure for categorizing any topic I could think of, that might come speeding across the kitchen table from my little sharpshooter.
Element 1: Family Heritage — Anything having to do with family background, culture, ancestry, relations, and kinship, all fall here like; “why does grandmother have a funny accent?” We discovered a lot of questions rolled up to topics in this category. To this day, we are having new conversations as the the family’s cultural heritage continues to grow.
Element 2: Family Management — Today, a lot of content in the family & parenting category deals with family management. Just a generation ago, this category was defined as; the head of the family runs the house, and makes the rules. Everyone else toes the line.
This unilateral approach has been replaced by topics aimed at correcting and avoiding the dysfunctional family, by building parenting partnerships that together, skillfully operate a well functioning household. Think of how many discussions you’ve had (or heard) that fit under the Family Management umbrella.
Element 3: Family & Personal Finance — OK, this category is probably a no-brainer and on everyone’s list. But we found this one was flooded with topic after sub-topic, and expert after expert leaving us dizzy and dismayed with all the choices.
Clarity in this category finally appeared when we started to see a difference in topics focused on ‘personal finance’ vs. topics specifically focused on ‘family finance’. That is, content dealing with how one is taught and thinks about money ‘personally’, which often comes from training received before becoming a new family, compared to how the family’s managers act and use money for its collective well-being. This can have a profound effect on which version of ‘the golden rule’ the family lives under.
Element 4: The Human Being — This organizes a broad range of topics and ‘experts’ on everything from diet and exercise, to career and managing your emotions. Similar to the two branches we recognized in Element 3, any question we faced on the subject of the ‘individual’, had to do either with the external human being (i.e.) the physical self, or the internal human being (i.e.) the intangible self.
And over time, we also discovered that most discussions in this Element led to the question; how does one maintain balance and harmony between the two selves, as a life-long practice. It was at this intersection, that I first came into contact with the principle of craftsmanship, and its utility as a guiding practice for balancing the inner and outer human being.
Element 5: Tools for Living — Stepping back and looking at the structure that was beginning to form, it became apparent that whichever topic was on the kitchen table at the moment, there came a point when the discussion turned to finding teachers/mentors to increase our knowledge in the topic, and guide the selection and use of the right tools for acquiring deeper skills in the topic.
Two years passed since that day of reckoning with my daughter in the kitchen. She was now 8 years old. We were officially beyond the baby days and into the days of student and teacher.
She was an aware human being fully capable of knowing whether or not her teacher knew their stuff, or was just making it up.
For myself, I had entered a state of self-confidence. I felt a sense of authenticity that I possessed skills and knew how to use them. I was no longer flying blindly by the seat of my pants.
Most of all, I felt I was equipped and capable of being a quality parent/mentor, able to help her acquire knowledge and skills across a wide range of life subjects.
Using the Five Elements organizing structure, I began to manage the unconnected or loosely connected content and ‘experts’ flooding the universe, as a unified, structured craft: life-as-a-craft.
During those two years, we named dozens of topics in each of the Five Elements. Using the local library (no internet yet) we pulled together a one-page synopsis on each topic using multiple sources. Each synopsis page was an introduction to the topic, like having a mini encyclopedia of our own making.
This exercise extended the training style we commonly learn in school, by asking a question or thinking about a subject, then doing a little research to learn more. The net result of this exercise proved to be her developing the skill of ‘learning how to learn’, no matter what subject she wanted to understand. It also made for some particularly good family times on Saturday’s together at the library seeing other families and friends from the town.
The second major outcome of this work was a growing realization that this thing we call ‘life’; the sum total of our physical, mental, and spiritual experience — particularly the time span between physical birth and death, could be managed, taught, and learned similar to the ways in which we manage, teach, and learn our trades, occupations, and professions.
The Five Elements became the simplified organizing structure I had been searching for to categorize any topic or sub-topic one might come across during one’s lifetime. And, one’s lifetime could be viewed as a structured continuum comprised of four distinct phases, similar to the four phases of practice in many trades, occupations, and professions.
Each with it own purpose. Each with its own rites of passage to the next phase to complete a finished life.
Phase 1: Apprenticeship — The Learning Phase | Age 12–24
Phase 2: Journeywork — The Building or Endurance Phase | Age 25–45
Phase 3: Masterwork — The Masterplan or Finishing Phase | Age 45–65
Phase 4: Mentorship — The Guiding Phase | Age 65–85+
Is Anything Ever Really Finished?
The work that began one day more than thirty years ago continues to this day. That inquisitive little girl in the kitchen is still inquisitive, and a mother of her own inquisitive little girl who in time, will make the earth stand still for her parents.
And they, like all parents will have to decide how they will respond. What curriculum will they set before her? Which skills will they teach her to make a masterpiece of her life?
Life-as-a-Craft; as a way of thinking and working has matured, and stood the test of time. The Way of Craftsmanship; as a principle for guiding one’s performance, and as a guiding force for balancing the interplay between the inner-self and the outer-self has also proven timeless, and inspires us every day to the work of making a masterpiece of our lives.
“For the craftsperson knows that their ultimate task is the making of themselves, their work never being fully finished.”