Cory Leonard

The Case for Working With Your Hands

In career on October 22, 2009 at 9:44 pm

The problem:  what kind of work is suitable for a person to do?

The typical answer:  office stuff.

The path: get a degree or two (or three).  Build your resume.

The desired result: meaningful work that pays fairly well.

The social science PhD-turned-motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford sure can write.  And he makes a compelling argument for working with your hands, among other things. In the review of his longer book, which came out recently, Francis Fukyama considers an important observation:

…the ideologists of the knowledge economy have posited a false dichotomy between knowing and doing. The fact of the matter is that most forms of real knowledge, including self-knowledge, come from the effort to struggle with and master the brute reality of material objects — loosening a bolt without stripping its threads, or backing a semi rig into a loading dock. All these activities, if done well, require knowledge both about the world as it is and about yourself, and your own limitations. They can’t be learned simply by following rules, as a computer does; they require intuitive knowledge that comes from long experience and repeated encounters with difficulty and failure. In this world, self-­esteem cannot be faked: if you can’t get the valve cover off the engine, the customer won’t pay you.

Highlights from this NYT Magazine article:

  • “The trades suffer from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake.  Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid.  This is not my experience.”
  • “Fred’s life as an independent tradesman gave me an image that I kept coming back to: someone who really knows what he is doing, losing himself in work that is genuinely useful and has a certain integrity to it. He also seemed to be having a lot of fun.”
  • “In deciding how to proceed, there often comes a point where you have to step back and get a larger gestalt. Have a cigarette and walk around the lift. The gap between theory and practice stretches out in front of you, and this is where it gets interesting. What you need now is the kind of judgment that arises only from experience; hunches rather than rules. For me, at least, there is more real thinking going on in the bike shop than there was in the think tank.

A particularly great insight deals with the role of a middle manager and what he describes as the “moral maze,” and how an academic MA relates to reality:

  • Like the mechanic, the manager faces the possibility of disaster at any time. But in his case these disasters feel arbitrary; they are typically a result of corporate restructurings, not of physics. A manager has to make many decisions for which he is accountable. Unlike an entrepreneur with his own business, however, his decisions can be reversed at any time by someone higher up the food chain (and there is always someone higher up the food chain). It’s important for your career that these reversals not look like defeats, and more generally you have to spend a lot of time managing what others think of you. Survival depends on a crucial insight: you can’t back down from an argument that you initially made in straightforward language, with moral conviction, without seeming to lose your integrity. So managers learn the art of provisional thinking and feeling, expressed in corporate doublespeak, and cultivate a lack of commitment to their own actions. Nothing is set in concrete the way it is when you are, for example, pouring concrete.
  • The escalating demand for academic credentials in the job market gives the impression of an ever-more-knowledgeable society, whose members perform cognitive feats their unschooled parents could scarcely conceive of. On paper, my abstracting job, multiplied a millionfold, is precisely what puts the futurologist in a rapture: we are getting to be so smart! Yet my M.A. obscures a more real stupidification of the work I secured with that credential, and a wage to match. When I first got the degree, I felt as if I had been inducted to a certain order of society. But despite the beautiful ties I wore, it turned out to be a more proletarian existence than I had known as an electrician. In that job I had made quite a bit more money. I also felt free and active, rather than confined and stultified.A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world. Academic credentials do not guarantee this. Nor can big business or big government — those idols of the right and the left — reliably secure such work for us. Everyone is rightly concerned about economic growth on the one hand or unemployment and wages on the other, but the character of work doesn’t figure much in political debate. Labor unions address important concerns like workplace safety and family leave, and management looks for greater efficiency, but on the nature of the job itself, the dominant political and economic paradigms are mute. Yet work forms us, and deforms us, with broad public consequences.

The Case for Working With Your Hands – NYTimes.com.

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