Do you like working with your hands? I bet quite a few of you do but you might be surprised to find not everyone understands the attraction. There's a growing resurgence in respect for this type of work, for the value it delivers, the feeling of pride among those who practice it and, not a small thing these days, the knowledge that it can't be done by someone thousands of miles away. If a repair is needed here, it's done here.
A new book just coming out, Shop Class as Soulcraft, written by philosopher turned motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford, explains the value and unrecognized pleasures of hands on work to the growing number of students never exposed to any type of shop class and to the many others who still hold a rather dim and inaccurate view of highly skilled manual labor. The book is new but this widespread misguided view of hands on work is not. The main issue, that needs to be debunked among those who scoff at hands on work, is the view that it’s a lesser form of intellectual labor requiring little high level thought or capability, contributing less real value to the world than those who work only with words and ideas, even when performed by those who do it very well. How little they see.
A large segment of the population has never experienced what many readers of The Kneeslider know very well, the feeling of deep satisfaction and accomplishment that comes from an intense focus on building and rebuilding, restoring and repairing. It's our secret, not because we're trying to hide it, but because many folks have their minds made up, their preconceived notion of dirty, greasy, hands on work is of something done by those who don't quite measure up in the esoteric world of words and ideas. They're quick to dismiss it until their world comes grinding to a halt, mortgages meltdown, financial markets crash and the movers and shakers find themselves wandering helpless with nothing to offer in return for a day's pay. However, even when their world is humming along, at the end of the day, after pushing paper, holding meetings and making endless phone calls, they may get an eerie sense that something's missing, that, added all together, nothing really was accomplished and tomorrow will be much the same.
During times like these, a few intrepid souls will discover something amazing, working with your hands, fixing things is deeply satisfying! A broken machine runs again, an old rusty motorcycle looks like new, an engine silent for years rumbles to life, ... you smile, the world is a better place, life is good.
These accidental explorers in the hands on world may be trying to revive long dormant skills gained in their early years, quickly finding why they enjoyed it before or perhaps a part time hobby is expanded to full time and they ask themselves why they waited so long. The roads are many but the results are the same, hands on work offers a chance to see real accomplishment because you can literally point to it. The difference between before and after is real and tangible, compare that to your energy draining 10 AM conference call.
Of course, moving from hands off to hands on may be difficult if you've spent your life chasing ... something ... anything ... who knows what, and your rusty skills have atrophied too far or you had little knowledge and skill to begin, but like everything else in the hands on world, that's a solvable problem.
These periodic rediscoveries of the virtues and pleasures of working with your hands can be a little amusing because some of us have seen it so many times before, however the young are struck with awe because it’s so obviously a totally new concept as they urgently inform us, “Hey, making stuff and fixing things is cool!” Hmm, … I would have never guessed. But it’s not just the young, those previous “Masters of the Universe” are equally caught off guard if by chance they encounter the undiscovered pleasures of complex machines and useful tools and then discover the nontrivial amount of serious thinking necessary to master them.
Over the last couple of months, articles have begun to appear in publications like The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Forbes showing those who have made the transition to hands on work, or are trying to, and advice is offered that perhaps we need to reexamine sending every young person to college, or at least to rethink that future in investment banking. Books are appearing to show a new generation what hands on work offers, but, there’s a long history of similar books and similar articles, as well.
One of my personal favorites, written in 1976, is Samuel Florman’s “The Existential Pleasures of Engineering.” The book focuses on the unrecognized interrelationship of engineering and the humanities and attempts to show why those who believe there is some sort of natural division between engineering and the arts miss the point. Many passages touch on the appeal of machinery and the pleasure experienced by knowing how to make it come alive.
In a chapter entitled "Look long on an engine," a line he takes from a poem, he quotes from the novel The Sand Pebbles the scene as Machinist's Mate 1st Class, Jake Holman, (played by Steve McQueen in the movie) looks over the main engine:
He looked at it, massive, dully gleaming brass and steel in columns and rods and links arching above drive rods from twinned eccentrics, great crossheads hung midway, and above them valve spindles and piston rods disappearing into the cylinder block. … Under his controlling hands, when they steamed, it was going to become living, speaking music.
Dull? Unthinking? Inartistic? I think not. Steve McQueen didn't think so, either.
A fascinating essay from Harper’s long ago, “Aristotle’s Garage” by Don Sharp, starts with the author examining the inner bore of a brake cylinder and quickly slides into a comparison of Plato’s politics with Aristotle’s zoology. All this philosophy from a simple brake cylinder, just think if the repairs were more complex!
The point of all this is that “mindless” or “unthinking” are hardly words to describe the activity we engage in as we work with our hands. It can certainly be those things but only if the practitioner brings nothing more to it. Our hands are intricate tools guided as accurately as our minds will allow, the proper diagnosis the result of careful observation, logical deduction and methodical testing. The finished repair displays a wide range of our abilities, our decisiveness while determining what needs to be done and our integrity, either as we perform the work to the highest standards, or something less. Our character is reflected by every repair, there’s no hiding behind committees and bureaucracies, judgment is honest and direct. Is it any wonder many find it so refreshing while others a little terrifying? If you're the sort who prefers to dodge responsibility for things gone wrong with a deft bit of verbal brilliance, the clear judgment of hands on work can be a scary place, politicians need not apply.
If this nascent trend continues to grow and just a few more people try hands on work, or at least rethink their view of it, perhaps the pendulum will swing in that direction for a while and it will gain greater respect, inevitably, though, it will swing away once again and hands on work will lose out, waiting for another, equally inevitable, future rediscovery. Of course, some of us will continue on knowing full well the challenges and rewards available from the hands on world and the level of thought necessary to perform at the highest levels. If no one else gets it and the trend dies, why don't we just keep the fun to ourselves?