"The Case For Working With Your Hands"

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on May 23, 2009

Matthew Crawford got his Ph.D from the University of Chicago, and went to work at a think tank in Washington, DC. In short, he lived the dream of many a “knowledge worker.”

He then gave it all up to run a motorcycle repair shop.

Plenty of people would find that latter choice to be a crazy one, and if I were in Crawford’s position, I would have found a way to achieve fulfillment in a think tank. But I cannot help but admire Crawford’s decision to leave and to take up a trade that excited his intellect by challenging him to work with his hands. In taking up motorcycle repair, Crawford was able to achieve the kind of intellectual pleasure and stimulation that few find when working in cubicles, and he lovingly describes and details the ways in which taking up a trade restored his intellect and soul here. It’s a long, but fascinating article, and its message is summed up in the following passage:

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.

Of course, people like me would counter that academic credentials may help make it possible to get a job that fits Crawford’s definition of ” a good job.” But Crawford makes an excellent point in his article when he tells us that in many ways, knowledge work has become as deadening to the intellect and the soul as craftwork is accused of being. I may have loved and enjoyed the think tank where Crawford worked, and may have found ways to derive intellectual stimulation from it. Crawford did not, but it would be ridiculous to think that he was not/is not into intellectual stimulation. His writing alone puts the lie to the suspicion that his brain is weak or inactive, and he puts forth excellent reasons for coming to the conclusion that work as a think tanker, or as an abstract writer, just did not cut it for him when it came to searching for intellectual stimulation. Who can read his description of being an abstract writer, compare it with his description of being a think tanker, and not think that at the very least, Crawford makes some good points in his argument?

I attended shop classes in the sixth and seventh grades. Shop stopped being a required class in my school after that. As Crawford points out, I have plenty of reasons to miss working with my hands; no matter how satisfying knowledge work can be–and let there be no misunderstanding, it can be satisfying–one can achieve a kind of intellectual stimulation and bliss from working with one’s hands at a craft or a trade that many knowledge workers would kill for. Even if it is just a hobby, tinkering about can restore the mind and soul; it is not for nothing that one of Colin Powell’s favorite hobbies is restoring old Volvos. If someone gave me a chance to have a shop room of my own, I’d take it in a heartbeat.

  • sloane

    It’s worth taking the time to read the whole article in the NYTimes Magazine: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/24/magazine/24labor-t.html I hope it gets all the attention it deserves and starts a larger discussion.
    I think that the idea of spending 4 years at a liberal arts school, learning more for the sake of learning than for anything else, is a beautiful, Utopian idea…it would be wonderful if our society could support each individual taking 4+ years just to learn, not connected to any trade, not contributing to the economy (and not preparing to contribute to it in a very directed or specific sense, at least). The costs are just prohibitive, though, and tuition keeps rising…for those who can pay for it, fine. I was fortunate enough to have parents who saved money from time I was born to be able to pay for me to go to college, and I’m glad I had the education that I did. But my English major has only led to a series of unfulfilling and depressing jobs…the author’s experiences resonate with me…To encourage All people to go to a four-year college, though (usually accumulating a sizeable amount of debt in the process) is a very narrow-minded view, divorced from market realities.

    Brand expert John Tantillo published a post on his marketing blog a few months ago about the importance of focusing on one’s personal brand in a weakened market. In it, he also republished a “30-second personal brand inventory.” Not everyone’s personal brand is going to mesh with a desk job…

  • http://www.chequer-board.net Pejman Yousefzadeh

    Very interesting. Thanks for the comment and the link.

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