A Deeper Purpose

Note: The following post is in anticipation of the announcement about our 2019 summer workshop. Inspired by Otto Salomon, Kurt Hahn, Bill Coperthwaite, and others, we will be adopting a rather unconventional model that is more like Outward Bound for woodworkers than a weekend-long “Build a Shaker ___” or “How-to ___” class. It will involve days of physical labor shoulder to shoulder with strangers on the same mission.

In the coming weeks, we will explain the details of our workshop model but the place to begin is discussing the M&T purpose statement…


Mike and I have been doing some soul searching lately. Over the last three years, M&T has continued to grow in readership and business maturity, and in the past year, this thing has developed into a stable, long-term business. Honestly, we never anticipated such an off-the-beaten-path, people-focused business to thrive so well. This has prompted us to consider afresh how we’re reflecting our values and where we’d like to improve. We’ve looked at innumerable ways to better reap from our strengths, tend to our weak areas, and prune the fruitless limbs.

Also, this year I’ve been reading a lot. I’ve been buried in such topics as social criticism, the theology of work and business, the impacts (positive and negative) of technology on society throughout history, and environmental stewardship – all things I have benefitted from thinking about over the years.

During the past few months, Mike and I have spent many hours discussing these topics alongside the formulation of our vision for Mortise & Tenon. As these discussions coalesced, our understanding of the purpose of business in the world began to crystallize. 

In this vein, we’ve been most helped by the writing of Jeff Van Duzer, provost at Seattle Pacific University, who argues that profit ought not to be the ultimate aim of business, but only the means of its sustainability. But the purpose of business, Van Duzer says, is two-fold: Externally, “to provide goods and services that a community needs to flourish” and internally, “to provide opportunities for individuals to express aspects of their God-given identities through meaningful and creative work.” He shows example after example of business mission statements that express a sense of purpose beyond the goods or services they provide. Put simply, businesses exist to serve society, not to accumulate wealth.

This has inspired Mike and me to attempt to articulate our own deeper purpose. It’s no mystery that Mortise & Tenon “celebrates pre-industrial furniture making by merging the insights of makers, conservators, and scholars.” But the new question we have been seeking to answer is “Why?” “Why do we celebrate pre-industrial craftsmanship?” Or another way of asking this is, “What are the values that undergird our publishing and teaching efforts?” or “What are we hoping to ultimately accomplish here, anyway?”

After several months of careful consideration and thoughtful conversation, we wrote our purpose statement as follows:

Mortise & Tenon exists to cultivate reverence for the dignity of humanity and the natural world through the celebration of handcraft.

Let’s unpack this a little bit.

Anyone who has learned the challenge of working wood with hand tools quickly comes to appreciate two things: skillful human hands and the splendor of quality natural materials. Most of us have seen master artisans work with such fluidity and skill that they make it look easy. On a closer look, though, it becomes clear that they’ve practiced over and over until it became second nature. If you haven’t seen anything like this, watch this video montage of copperplate calligraphy and try telling me you’re not awestruck.

It’s this kind of mastery that inspires Mike and me as woodworkers. The human hand skillfully guiding an edge tool through wood is something so visceral, so ancient, that we see it as an organic expression of humanity.

Our purpose statement, then, discloses the values that underlie everything M&T does. We want to cultivate awe for both the incredible things that all people are capable of and a deep appreciation of the beautiful complexity of nature.

Does this mean our publishing content is going to change? Are we going to start running articles about the importance of community, respect, and compassion? No. Mortise & Tenon will continue on as usual and, on the surface, it may look to some folks like this purpose statement was never written. But it has become obvious to us that navigating this world with a greater sense of purpose is essential to achieve ultimate goals and to maintain integrity. 

In truth, we’ve always found that these values can play out in many ways in our business practice. Thinking of our customers not merely as instruments through which we acquire profit, but as dignified ends in themselves, informs our views of marketing, customer service, social media, supply purchasing, and so on. Although we are far from perfect, we always look to improve our response to the most important question, “How can we better live according to what we believe?”

We look forward to hosting our first workshop this summer so we can see these principles at work in the lives of individuals as we’ve seen happen at our packing parties. Stay tuned for more information. We hope you can join us.

- Joshua


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