Shop Class as Soulcraft

This book grows out of an attempt to understand the greater sense of agency and competence I have always felt doing manual work, compared to other jobs that were officially recognized as "knowledge work."  Perhaps most surprisingly, I often find manual work more engaging intellectually.  This book is an attempt to understand why this should be so.

That's from Matthew B. Crawford, who has a Ph.d. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago yet now runs a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond.  I would cite shooting baskets, walking, and cooking as three of my analogous "intellectual" activities.



I'm not sure I buy it. An amendment: PhD economists can usually choose from a variety of good jobs: academia, think tanks, industry, Government work, Wall Street. Not so for PhDs from the humanities and the other social sciences. The alternative to an academic position is likely a boring desk job. Then, we have a simple ordering in intellectual stimulation: good knowledge jobs (e.g. academia) > good manual labor > lousy knowledge jobs > lousy manual labor.

That's interesting. I have heavily intellectualized my hockey goaltending. In conversing with other players, I often surprise myself (and maybe them) at how I have created mental lists, maps, and individual histories, all in an effort to be a better goalie. My work life allows only weekly games (no practices), but nonetheless I have improved significantly and find games one of the few places where I am not thinking about economics. It is interesting to me that I consider it a break, given that my mind is working just as hard as when I am pursuing my occupation. Needless to say, I find it tremendously satisfying and often wonder how obsessed I would have been if I had discovered hockey at 15 instead of 24.

I've found that doing manual labor allows me time to think, time to let my mind wander; that time has become more and more scarce. So, while I don't look forward, necessarily, to mowing the lawn, I do enjoy the hour or so of uninterrupted time to let my mind wander all over.

I imagine that if you are very smart but don't enjoy smart-work very much (i.e., research, writing, reading) but do enjoy just plain thinking, then you might find more enjoyment out of life by reading in your spare time and doing something for a job that allows you to spend lots of time thinking.

That said - as Neal and Jack both pointed out above, there's manual labor, and there's manual labor. I've worked as a dishwasher for The Olive Garden. It wasn't the worst job I've ever had, but I wouldn't want to spend the next 30 years doing that by any means. On the other hand, when I was 15 I spent the summer rebuilding the engine for a VW bug. That was a lot more enjoyable.

I'm thinking that manual work is intellectually stimulating only if you don't do it often. Its one thing to landscape the yard, another to do it for a living. The former is a work of art, the latter just another day of hard labor.

This book does, in fact, provide the most compelling explanation for why so many lawyers have substance abuse problems.

Nice article on this in NY Times Magazine.

" The Case for Working With Your Hands"

That may be a reason software developers tend to love their jobs - all the benefits of a knowledge worker (good work conditions, good pay) but with a tangible result.

I'm starting to wonder if I'm a different demographic from most of the commenters here: my manual work hobbies are embroidery and quilting, plus cooking. (in fact, there's a quilt on my lap to sew binding while I catch up on blogs.)

I absolutely agree with the premise that manual work can be more satisfying, for me because it has more immediate and measurable results than a lot of intellectual work. I work in operations for that reason.

I think one of the things that people are missing here is that motorcycle repair is nothing like simple physical activities such as shooting baskets. To be at the top of the field of motorcycle repair requires an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of motorcycle design (which is why some repair people specialize in a particular era or particular brand -- to be expert at all brands and eras may be too much). For vintage motorcycles, it requires knowing the people and resources for parts and knowledge (e.g. the guy out in Montana who has every part for, say, a 1940s Indian). And then there's the mental work involved in trouble-shooting (which is sometimes straightforward, but other times not at all -- which you know if you listen to 'Car Talk').

And, BTW, one of the reasons we've lost so many of these kinds of jobs is precisely *because* they're intellectually challenging. By that I mean, being an expert appliance repair person is probably on something of the same level -- a great deal of skill and experience is required to do it well. But building a new washing machine on an assembly line requires relatively little skill (and much of it can be automated). So it's not uncommon to be faced with the choice of spending, say $300-$400 for a new washer or $150 for a service call on a 10-year-old washer. It's pretty easy to do that math. $150 is not unreasonable for an hour with a seasoned pro (plus travel plus equipment), but it's not a good deal compared to the materials and low-skill labor in a new machine (which, of course, will have all new parts and improvements over the old model).

I don't see a reversal of that dynamic. But on the bright side, Obama may be leading us into a revival of the do-it-yourselfer. Higher tax rates are an ideal way to encourage people at the margins to 'pay themselves under the table' to build and fix things.

I'm starting to wonder if I'm a different demographic from most of the commenters here ...
You wouldn't happen to be female as your alias suggests, would you? That might explain the embroidery and quilting, as opposed to motorcycle repair, lawnmowing, or basketball.

When we have spare time to burn on manual labor, as I said above, I enjoy building furniture, mowing, or working in the garden. My wife likes to sew (over spring break, she made all new curtains for our apartment in preparation for the baby) and make models.

Come to think of it, I like to build models, too. But whereas she built a dollhouse from cardboard, complete with furniture and people made of clay, I built a plastic model of the USS Missouri. "Different demographics" indeed. :)

I think it's about balance. Reading the reviews on amazon, I thought to myself, manufacturing IS declining in the US, but physical labor is still rewarding. And measuring the success of the work is not enough- we need to define quantifiable metrics for successful projects, which falls more into the category of product development, ie. knowledge work. Don't we want balance in life? Can't we have both?

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Loved reading all the comments on this post!

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