The Case for Working With Your Hands
Source Dave Anderson
Date 09/05/28/20:01
The Case for Working With Your Hands

THE TELEVISION show “Deadliest Catch” depicts commercial crab
fishermen in the Bering Sea. Another, “Dirty Jobs,” shows all kinds of
grueling work; one episode featured a guy who inseminates turkeys for
a living. The weird fascination of these shows must lie partly in the
fact that such confrontations with material reality have become
exotically unfamiliar. Many of us do work that feels more surreal than
real. Working in an office, you often find it difficult to see any
tangible result from your efforts. What exactly have you accomplished
at the end of any given day? Where the chain of cause and effect is
opaque and responsibility diffuse, the experience of individual agency
can be elusive. “Dilbert,” “The Office” and similar portrayals of
cubicle life attest to the dark absurdism with which many Americans
have come to view their white-collar jobs.

Is there a more “real” alternative (short of inseminating turkeys)?

High-school shop-class programs were widely dismantled in the 1990s as
educators prepared students to become “knowledge workers.” The
imperative of the last 20 years to round up every warm body and send
it to college, then to the cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future
in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in
a pure information economy. This has not come to pass. To begin with,
such work often feels more enervating than gliding. More
fundamentally, now as ever, somebody has to actually do things: fix
our cars, unclog our toilets, build our houses.

When we praise people who do work that is straightforwardly useful,
the praise often betrays an assumption that they had no other options.
We idealize them as the salt of the earth and emphasize the sacrifice
for others their work may entail. Such sacrifice does indeed occur —
the hazards faced by a lineman restoring power during a storm come to
mind. But what if such work answers as well to a basic human need of
the one who does it? I take this to be the suggestion of Marge
Piercy’s poem “To Be of Use,” which concludes with the lines “the
pitcher longs for water to carry/and a person for work that is real.”
Beneath our gratitude for the lineman may rest envy.

This seems to be a moment when the useful arts have an especially
compelling economic rationale. A car mechanics’ trade association
reports that repair shops have seen their business jump significantly
in the current recession: people aren’t buying new cars; they are
fixing the ones they have. The current downturn is likely to pass
eventually. But there are also systemic changes in the economy,
arising from information technology, that have the surprising effect
of making the manual trades — plumbing, electrical work, car repair —
more attractive as careers. The Princeton economist Alan Blinder
argues that the crucial distinction in the emerging labor market is
not between those with more or less education, but between those whose
services can be delivered over a wire and those who must do their work
in person or on site. The latter will find their livelihoods more
secure against outsourcing to distant countries. As Blinder puts it,
“You can’t hammer a nail over the Internet.” Nor can the Indians fix
your car. Because they are in India.

If the goal is to earn a living, then, maybe it isn’t really true that
18-year-olds need to be imparted with a sense of panic about getting
into college (though they certainly need to learn). Some people are
hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, against their own
inclinations and natural bents, when they would rather be learning to
build things or fix things. One shop teacher suggested to me that “in
schools, we create artificial learning environments for our children
that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention
and engagement. Without the opportunity to learn through the hands,
the world remains abstract and distant, and the passions for learning
will not be engaged.”

A gifted young person who chooses to become a mechanic rather than to
accumulate academic credentials is viewed as eccentric, if not
self-destructive. There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that
there is only one track to success for their children. It runs through
a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions. Further,
there is wide use of drugs to medicate boys, especially, against their
natural tendency toward action, the better to “keep things on track.”
I taught briefly in a public high school and would have loved to have
set up a Ritalin fogger in my classroom. It is a rare person, male or
female, who is naturally inclined to sit still for 17 years in school,
and then indefinitely at work.

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. I have a small business as a
motorcycle mechanic in Richmond, Va., which I started in 2002. I work
on Japanese and European motorcycles, mostly older bikes with some
“vintage” cachet that makes people willing to spend money on them. I
have found the satisfactions of the work to be very much bound up with
the intellectual challenges it presents. And yet my decision to go
into this line of work is a choice that seems to perplex many people.

After finishing a Ph.D. in political philosophy at the University of
Chicago in 2000, I managed to stay on with a one-year postdoctoral
fellowship at the university’s Committee on Social Thought. The
academic job market was utterly bleak. In a state of professional
panic, I retreated to a makeshift workshop I set up in the basement of
a Hyde Park apartment building, where I spent the winter tearing down
an old Honda motorcycle and rebuilding it. The physicality of it, and
the clear specificity of what the project required of me, was a balm.
Stumped by a starter motor that seemed to check out in every way but
wouldn’t work, I started asking around at Honda dealerships. Nobody
had an answer; finally one service manager told me to call Fred
Cousins of Triple O Service. “If anyone can help you, Fred can.”

I called Fred, and he invited me to come to his independent
motorcycle-repair shop, tucked discreetly into an unmarked warehouse
on Goose Island. He told me to put the motor on a certain bench that
was free of clutter. He checked the electrical resistance through the
windings, as I had done, to confirm there was no short circuit or
broken wire. He spun the shaft that ran through the center of the
motor, as I had. No problem: it spun freely. Then he hooked it up to a
battery. It moved ever so slightly but wouldn’t spin. He grasped the
shaft, delicately, with three fingers, and tried to wiggle it side to
side. “Too much free play,” he said. He suggested that the problem was
with the bushing (a thick-walled sleeve of metal) that captured the
end of the shaft in the end of the cylindrical motor housing. It was
worn, so it wasn’t locating the shaft precisely enough. The shaft was
free to move too much side to side (perhaps a couple of hundredths of
an inch), causing the outer circumference of the rotor to bind on the
inner circumference of the motor housing when a current was applied.
Fred scrounged around for a Honda motor. He found one with the same
bushing, then used a “blind hole bearing puller” to extract it, as
well as the one in my motor. Then he gently tapped the new, or rather
newer, one into place. The motor worked! Then Fred gave me an
impromptu dissertation on the peculiar metallurgy of these Honda
starter-motor bushings of the mid-’70s. Here was a scholar.

Over the next six months I spent a lot of time at Fred’s shop,
learning, and put in only occasional appearances at the university.
This was something of a regression: I worked on cars throughout high
school and college, and one of my early jobs was at a Porsche repair
shop. Now I was rediscovering the intensely absorbing nature of the
work, and it got me thinking about possible livelihoods.

As it happened, in the spring I landed a job as executive director of
a policy organization in Washington. This felt like a coup. But
certain perversities became apparent as I settled into the job. It
sometimes required me to reason backward, from desired conclusion to
suitable premise. The organization had taken certain positions, and
there were some facts it was more fond of than others. As its
figurehead, I was making arguments I didn’t fully buy myself. Further,
my boss seemed intent on retraining me according to a certain
cognitive style — that of the corporate world, from which he had
recently come. This style demanded that I project an image of
rationality but not indulge too much in actual reasoning. As I sat in
my K Street office, 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.

Seeing a motorcycle about to leave my shop under its own power,
several days after arriving in the back of a pickup truck, I don’t
feel tired even though I’ve been standing on a concrete floor all day.
Peering into the portal of his helmet, I think I can make out the
edges of a grin on the face of a guy who hasn’t ridden his bike in a
while. I give him a wave. With one of his hands on the throttle and
the other on the clutch, I know he can’t wave back. But I can hear his
salute in the exuberant “bwaaAAAAP!” of a crisp throttle, gratuitously
revved. That sound pleases me, as I know it does him. It’s a
ventriloquist conversation in one mechanical voice, and the gist of it
is “Yeah!”

After five months at the think tank, I’d saved enough money to buy
some tools I needed, and I quit and went into business fixing bikes.
My shop rate is $40 per hour. Other shops have rates as high as $70
per hour, but I tend to work pretty slowly. Further, only about half
the time I spend in the shop ends up being billable (I have no
employees; every little chore falls to me), so it usually works out
closer to $20 per hour — a modest but decent wage. The business goes
up and down; when it is down I have supplemented it with writing. The
work is sometimes frustrating, but it is never irrational.

And it frequently requires complex thinking. In fixing motorcycles you
come up with several imagined trains of cause and effect for manifest
symptoms, and you judge their likelihood before tearing anything down.
This imagining relies on a mental library that you develop. An
internal combustion engine can work in any number of ways, and
different manufacturers have tried different approaches. Each has its
own proclivities for failure. You also develop a library of sounds and
smells and feels. For example, the backfire of a too-lean fuel mixture
is subtly different from an ignition backfire.

As in any learned profession, you just have to know a lot. If the
motorcycle is 30 years old, from an obscure maker that went out of
business 20 years ago, its tendencies are known mostly through lore.
It would probably be impossible to do such work in isolation, without
access to a collective historical memory; you have to be embedded in a
community of mechanic-antiquarians. These relationships are maintained
by telephone, in a network of reciprocal favors that spans the
country. My most reliable source, Fred, has such an encyclopedic
knowledge of obscure European motorcycles that all I have been able to
offer him in exchange is deliveries of obscure European beer.

There is always a risk of introducing new complications when working
on old motorcycles, and this enters the diagnostic logic. Measured in
likelihood of screw-ups, the cost is not identical for all avenues of
inquiry when deciding which hypothesis to pursue. Imagine you’re
trying to figure out why a bike won’t start. The fasteners holding the
engine covers on 1970s-era Hondas are Phillips head, and they are
almost always rounded out and corroded. Do you really want to check
the condition of the starter clutch if each of eight screws will need
to be drilled out and extracted, risking damage to the engine case?
Such impediments have to be taken into account. The attractiveness of
any hypothesis is determined in part by physical circumstances that
have no logical connection to the diagnostic problem at hand. The
mechanic’s proper response to the situation cannot be anticipated by a
set of rules or algorithms.

There probably aren’t many jobs that can be reduced to rule-following
and still be done well. But in many jobs there is an attempt to do
just this, and the perversity of it may go unnoticed by those who
design the work process. Mechanics face something like this problem in
the factory service manuals that we use. These manuals tell you to be
systematic in eliminating variables, presenting an idealized image of
diagnostic work. But they never take into account the risks of working
on old machines. So you put the manual away and consider the facts
before you. You do this because ultimately you are responsible to the
motorcycle and its owner, not to some procedure.

Some diagnostic situations contain a lot of variables. Any given
symptom may have several possible causes, and further, these causes
may interact with one another and therefore be difficult to isolate.
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.

Put differently, mechanical work has required me to cultivate
different intellectual habits. Further, habits of mind have an ethical
dimension that we don’t often think about. Good diagnosis requires
attentiveness to the machine, almost a conversation with it, rather
than assertiveness, as in the position papers produced on K Street.
Cognitive psychologists speak of “metacognition,” which is the
activity of stepping back and thinking about your own thinking. It is
what you do when you stop for a moment in your pursuit of a solution,
and wonder whether your understanding of the problem is adequate. The
slap of worn-out pistons hitting their cylinders can sound a lot like
loose valve tappets, so to be a good mechanic you have to be
constantly open to the possibility that you may be mistaken. This is a
virtue that is at once cognitive and moral. It seems to develop
because the mechanic, if he is the sort who goes on to become good at
it, internalizes the healthy functioning of the motorcycle as an
object of passionate concern. How else can you explain the elation he
gets when he identifies the root cause of some problem?

This active concern for the motorcycle is reinforced by the social
aspects of the job. As is the case with many independent mechanics, my
business is based entirely on word of mouth. I sometimes barter
services with machinists and metal fabricators. This has a very
different feel than transactions with money; it situates me in a
community. The result is that I really don’t want to mess up anybody’s
motorcycle or charge more than a fair price. You often hear people
complain about mechanics and other tradespeople whom they take to be
dishonest or incompetent. I am sure this is sometimes justified. But
it is also true that the mechanic deals with a large element of

I once accidentally dropped a feeler gauge down into the crankcase of
a Kawasaki Ninja that was practically brand new, while performing its
first scheduled valve adjustment. I escaped a complete tear-down of
the motor only through an operation that involved the use of a
stethoscope, another pair of trusted hands and the sort of
concentration we associate with a bomb squad. When finally I laid my
fingers on that feeler gauge, I felt as if I had cheated death. I
don’t remember ever feeling so alive as in the hours that followed.

Often as not, however, such crises do not end in redemption. Moments
of elation are counterbalanced with failures, and these, too, are
vivid, taking place right before your eyes. With stakes that are often
high and immediate, the manual trades elicit heedful absorption in
work. They are punctuated by moments of pleasure that take place
against a darker backdrop: a keen awareness of catastrophe as an
always-present possibility. The core experience is one of individual
responsibility, supported by face-to-face interactions between
tradesman and customer.

Contrast the experience of being a middle manager. This is a stock
figure of ridicule, but the sociologist Robert Jackall spent years
inhabiting the world of corporate managers, conducting interviews, and
he poignantly describes the “moral maze” they feel trapped in. 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.

Those who work on the lower rungs of the information-age office
hierarchy face their own kinds of unreality, as I learned some time
ago. After earning a master’s degree in the early 1990s, I had a hard
time finding work but eventually landed a job in the Bay Area writing
brief summaries of academic journal articles, which were then sold on
CD-ROMs to subscribing libraries. When I got the phone call offering
me the job, I was excited. I felt I had grabbed hold of the passing
world — miraculously, through the mere filament of a classified ad —
and reeled myself into its current. My new bosses immediately took up
residence in my imagination, where I often surprised them with my
hidden depths. As I was shown to my cubicle, I felt a real sense of
being honored. It seemed more than spacious enough. It was my desk,
where I would think my thoughts — my unique contribution to a common
enterprise, in a real company with hundreds of employees. The
regularity of the cubicles made me feel I had found a place in the
order of things. I was to be a knowledge worker.

But the feel of the job changed on my first day. The company had
gotten its start by providing libraries with a subject index of
popular magazines like Sports Illustrated. Through a series of mergers
and acquisitions, it now found itself offering not just indexes but
also abstracts (that is, summaries), and of a very different kind of
material: scholarly works in the physical and biological sciences,
humanities, social sciences and law. Some of this stuff was simply
incomprehensible to anyone but an expert in the particular field
covered by the journal. I was reading articles in Classical Philology
where practically every other word was in Greek. Some of the
scientific journals were no less mysterious. Yet the categorical
difference between, say, Sports Illustrated and Nature Genetics seemed
not to have impressed itself on the company’s decision makers. In some
of the titles I was assigned, articles began with an abstract written
by the author. But even in such cases I was to write my own. The
reason offered was that unless I did so, there would be no “value
added” by our product. It was hard to believe I was going to add
anything other than error and confusion to such material. But then, I
hadn’t yet been trained.

My job was structured on the supposition that in writing an abstract
of an article there is a method that merely needs to be applied, and
that this can be done without understanding the text. I was actually
told this by the trainer, Monica, as she stood before a whiteboard,
diagramming an abstract. Monica seemed a perfectly sensible person and
gave no outward signs of suffering delusions. She didn’t insist too
much on what she was telling us, and it became clear she was in a
position similar to that of a veteran Soviet bureaucrat who must work
on two levels at once: reality and official ideology. The official
ideology was a bit like the factory service manuals I mentioned
before, the ones that offer procedures that mechanics often have to
ignore in order to do their jobs.

My starting quota, after finishing a week of training, was 15 articles
per day. By my 11th month at the company, my quota was up to 28
articles per day (this was the normal, scheduled increase). I was
always sleepy while at work, and I think this exhaustion was because I
felt trapped in a contradiction: the fast pace demanded complete focus
on the task, yet that pace also made any real concentration
impossible. I had to actively suppress my own ability to think,
because the more you think, the more the inadequacies in your
understanding of an author’s argument come into focus. This can only
slow you down. To not do justice to an author who had poured himself
into the subject at hand felt like violence against what was best in

The quota demanded, then, not just dumbing down but also a bit of
moral re-education, the opposite of the kind that occurs in the
heedful absorption of mechanical work. I had to suppress my sense of
responsibility to the article itself, and to others — to the author,
to begin with, as well as to the hapless users of the database, who
might naïvely suppose that my abstract reflected the author’s work.
Such detachment was made easy by the fact there was no immediate
consequence for me; I could write any nonsense whatever.

Now, it is probably true that every job entails some kind of
mutilation. I used to work as an electrician and had my own business
doing it for a while. As an electrician you breathe a lot of unknown
dust in crawl spaces, your knees get bruised, your neck gets strained
from looking up at the ceiling while installing lights or ceiling fans
and you get shocked regularly, sometimes while on a ladder. Your hands
are sliced up from twisting wires together, handling junction boxes
made out of stamped sheet metal and cutting metal conduit with a
hacksaw. But none of this damage touches the best part of yourself.

You might wonder: Wasn’t there any quality control? My supervisor
would periodically read a few of my abstracts, and I was sometimes
corrected and told not to begin an abstract with a dependent clause.
But I was never confronted with an abstract I had written and told
that it did not adequately reflect the article. The quality standards
were the generic ones of grammar, which could be applied without my
supervisor having to read the article at hand. Rather, my supervisor
and I both were held to a metric that was conjured by someone remote
from the work process — an absentee decision maker armed with a
(putatively) profit-maximizing calculus, one that took no account of
the intrinsic nature of the job. I wonder whether the resulting
perversity really made for maximum profits in the long term. Corporate
managers are not, after all, the owners of the businesses they run.

At lunch I had a standing arrangement with two other abstracters. One
was from my group, a laconic, disheveled man named Mike whom I liked
instantly. He did about as well on his quota as I did on mine, but it
didn’t seem to bother him too much. The other guy was from beyond the
partition, a meticulously groomed Liberian named Henry who said he had
worked for the C.I.A. He had to flee Liberia very suddenly one day and
soon found himself resettled near the office parks of Foster City,
Calif. Henry wasn’t going to sweat the quota. Come 12:30, the three of
us would hike to the food court in the mall. This movement was always
thrilling. It involved traversing several “campuses,” with ponds
frequented by oddly real seagulls, then the lunch itself, which I
always savored. (Marx writes that under conditions of estranged labor,
man “no longer feels himself to be freely active in any but his animal
functions.”) Over his burrito, Mike would recount the outrageous
things he had written in his abstracts. I could see my own future in
such moments of sabotage — the compensating pleasures of a cubicle
drone. Always funny and gentle, Mike confided one day that he was
doing quite a bit of heroin. On the job. This actually made some

How was it that I, once a proudly self-employed electrician, had ended
up among these walking wounded, a “knowledge worker” at a salary of
$23,000? I had a master’s degree, and it needed to be used. 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 visceral experience of failure seems to have been edited out of
the career trajectories of gifted students. It stands to reason, then,
that those who end up making big decisions that affect all of us don’t
seem to have much sense of their own fallibility, and of how badly
things can go wrong even with the best of intentions (like when I
dropped that feeler gauge down into the Ninja). In the boardrooms of
Wall Street and the corridors of Pennsylvania Avenue, I don’t think
you’ll see a yellow sign that says “Think Safety!” as you do on job
sites and in many repair shops, no doubt because those who sit on the
swivel chairs tend to live remote from the consequences of the
decisions they make. Why not encourage gifted students to learn a
trade, if only in the summers, so that their fingers will be crushed
once or twice before they go on to run the country?

There is good reason to suppose that responsibility has to be
installed in the foundation of your mental equipment — at the level of
perception and habit. There is an ethic of paying attention that
develops in the trades through hard experience. It inflects your
perception of the world and your habitual responses to it. This is due
to the immediate feedback you get from material objects and to the
fact that the work is typically situated in face-to-face interactions
between tradesman and customer.

An economy that is more entrepreneurial, less managerial, would be
less subject to the kind of distortions that occur when corporate
managers’ compensation is tied to the short-term profit of distant
shareholders. For most entrepreneurs, profit is at once a more
capacious and a more concrete thing than this. It is a calculation in
which the intrinsic satisfactions of work count — not least, the
exercise of your own powers of reason.

Ultimately it is enlightened self-interest, then, not a harangue about
humility or public-spiritedness, that will compel us to take a fresh
look at the trades. The good life comes in a variety of forms. This
variety has become difficult to see; our field of aspiration has
narrowed into certain channels. But the current perplexity in the
economy seems to be softening our gaze. Our peripheral vision is
perhaps recovering, allowing us to consider the full range of lives
worth choosing. For anyone who feels ill suited by disposition to
spend his days sitting in an office, the question of what a good job
looks like is now wide open.

Matthew B. Crawford lives in Richmond, Va. His book, “Shop Class as
Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work,” from which this essay
is adapted, will be published this week by Penguin Press.

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