Details and principles

August 15th, 2011

So there I was again, in the heart of Borneo, browsing through another bookstore, this time in my old hometown — Sibu, when my eyes fell upon another book.

Encrusted in dust, this book looked like it’s been sitting there for the past three decades, just waiting for me to pick it up.

I’m not sure why it attracted my attention, certainly not because of the title, ‘How to Overcome Competition.’ But I started reading it, and I was hooked. I loved the direct style of writing, it’s something I’ve been trying to cultivate so I bought the book.

Once home, I decided to google the author’s name, Herbert Casson. I found he was a Canadian who lived mostly in England at the turn of the twentieth century. He started out as a minister and ended up an authority on business practices.

What got me excited was his seeming obsession with efficiency. He founded a journal named after that very subject and published a number of books on it.

Efficiency, of course, is a pet subject of mine. It is an integral part of virtuosity — much of virtuosity has to do with streamlining your task, refining it and making it as efficient as possible.

But what got me really excited was a book of his, titled ‘Lectures on Efficiency’ which I found in digital format here:

On page 4, he divides work into two parts, details and principles. Here’s an excerpt of the text:

Here are the details and here are the principles. If a man learns the job himself and does not read books, or travel, or listen to lectures, he only knows the details. He does not know the principles at all. You learn details by what you do yourself; I could not teach you details. There are no two jobs alike, and so you must learn your own details.

But there is something else besides details in every Works, that is, GENERAL PRINCIPLES, which you cannot learn yourself, because it is a very different thing. There are the two halves of a circle. A Works is like an umbrella, the ribs are the principles, the cloth is the detail; it takes them both. If a man only knows details, he sees his job at the small end; if he only knows principles, he is a theorist and a dreamer, and he cannot do anything at all.

Well, you get the general idea.

His explanation of principles is something right after my own heart. It’s practically the theme song of my life.

Ever since I was young, I had always understood that there’re principles and there’re techniques. And principles have always been of greater importance to me than techniques because they give rise to the latter.

When I saw an athlete run, I wanted to know the principles behind his speed. When I watched a small kungfu master beat a hulking boxing champ in a sparring match, I wanted to know the principles behind his strength too.

To me, it’s all about principles. because once you understand the principles, you can create any details (techniques) you want.

The AOV is essentially a compilation of all the principles I’ve learned. These principles are so fundamental and universal to good technique, it still amazes me no one had thought of compiling them before.

What I read in the ‘Lectures’ by Herbert Casson was a validation of the rationale and purpose of the AOV.

So the next day, I went back to the bookstore again to see if there were other books by him. I did find another book, equally encrusted in dust and so old, it literally fell apart as I opened it. I bought it too, although I doubt I would be applying the principles in that book anytime soon. It’s called, ‘Window Display.’

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