The Case for Working with Your Hands by Matthew Crawford

Some books stay with you for years because they opened your eyes to something that seemed intuitively right despite your feelings about it. Then there are those books that spell out something that you’ve known for some time without knowing quite how to spell it out yourself. And there are times in this when you wish that what were spelled out were otherwise.

The Case for Working with Your Hands describes how the world of work has in recent decades leaned ever more towards brain work than handiwork. Crawford examines several implications to this trend that go against the prevailing wisdom that it’s a good thing. One of these is that it’s getting harder for people to see tangible fruits to their labour. The workplace is awash with ‘targets’, ’outcomes’, ‘milestones’ and all sorts of measures that attempt to replace a product that we can hold in our hands to verify whether we had a good day at work or not. This leaves us dealing with the politics of managing appearances. What’s worse is that so much of this brain work can easily be replaced by workflow systems, the division of labour into small, semi-skilled and low paid labour, and, ultimately, machines.

In contrast, Crawford discusses the satisfaction and creativity to skilled manual tasks. His prime example is what he turned to after leaving a consultancy career: repairing motorbikes. He found that the intellectual challenges were greater than anything he encountered when completing his PhD at Chicago. There is, he contends, in our rush for the glamour of brain work, a corresponding devaluation of crafts. Mastering a craft, he goes on, demands an empathy with the world. Repairing something means meeting objects on their own terms. The computerised world encourages us to press buttons and expect our wishes to be instantly granted. Physical objects have no interest in our wishes, having properties that obey their own laws. Manual work therefore requires getting out of oneself and understanding something else on its terms.

My only complaint about the book was that there’s only so many repair workers needed, even if there’s currently a shortfall. What is everyone else to do? Most manual tasks get mechanised in automated factories. So what does that leave? The only way I can answer this is to suggest that the book is best read as a way into re-imagining the world in non-computing and non-abstract terms. After all, computing and abstract jobs end up mechanised or redundant, and quicker than anything else.

I read this book four years ago. My partner loaned it to me because Crawford described exactly the workplace I found myself confronting after university. It was sobering. I found myself wondering how and if I should train as an electrician (UK rules stop you from doing this if you have a ‘higher’ qualification). And I still wonder this. I eventually found work, but it’s patchy, low paid, and short-term. The knowledge economy I was sold while I was a student barely appeared, and what is left is shrinking.

So this book is crammed with joy and sadness. If, as many online book bloggers and blog readers are, you’re working on a career in publishing, you’ll get a lot from reading Crawford. He balances the gloomy forecasting with a lot of detail about the satisfactions of ‘shop class’. In the spirit of this balance, I’ve added a gallery about a manual task I enjoy. It’s hard to escape the question once it’s in your head: are there unmechanisable, creative manual jobs that it would be great to spend a bit more time on and, perhaps, get paid for?

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8 Responses to The Case for Working with Your Hands by Matthew Crawford

  1. Eric Wayne says:

    Even before you mentioned the motorcycle repair bit I was already thinking of “Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, which I read when I was 18, so, a long ass time ago. But certain passages and ideas stuck with me, and I was remembering the writer’s pleasure at understanding how a motorcycle worked. And I’ve often regretted my university education in relation to available jobs, and thought if would have been better if instead of going to grad school I’d learned a trade that couldn’t be outsourced. I also thought electrician sounded good, because, well, plumber deals with shit. I realized the importance of both these jobs when I needed an electrician or a plumber in my apartment in Brooklyn. They called the shots, because they were in demand. And then, of course, my job was outsourced.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff says:

      I wonder similarly about whether arts and humanities education is a waste or not. How can one apply it when there are few opportunities to do so? It’s easy to say ‘oh, but the REAL rewards … etc’ but anyone saying that either has enough privilege to elevate them above such worries, or perhaps hasn’t had the kind of education that would make them worried about such things in the first place. What we can say is that it takes having a ‘wasted’ education to recognise the possibility that we’ve potentially wasted our time – if we’d have gone to plumbing school then would we worry that we’ve wasted our time on something that never interested us enough and maybe we should have studied symbolist poetry instead?
      In the end, many people like you and I try to find something we’re OK with doing in order to fund something we’re passionate about. Perhaps there needs to be a self-help book for us that shows us how to endure the self-help platitudes that can trip forth whenever raising our concerns about wasted talent / education? Do you receive them? Things like ‘oh, if you find something you like to do that pays a living then you’ll never need to work’. I mean, gimme a break.
      I suppose the real problem is that most of the work the world needs doing is repetitive (and therefore makes you replaceable) and is designed to remove subjectivity (because that’s where errors usually occur) so it’s going to be poor at supplying meaning. I wonder when it was that the idea crept in that work should supply meaning? Maybe what we need to do is treat anything we get from it as a bonus if it feels better than cruelty?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Seeing your photos makes me want to build something…I also thought of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance…


    • Jeff says:

      I find myself planning to build shelving one moment and then picking up something else to read about the next. This is the habit I think the book tries to shift.


  3. Stefanie says:

    This book sounds great! I think even if we don’t have the chance to have a profession that allows us to work with our hands there is much to be said for the DIY approach to things around the house. As a gardener, I often wonder what it would be like to have a small farm. I was actually talking about this with a coworker the other day who thought that it would be a much more satisfying profession in many ways than librarianship. I must say I agree. My spouse is not so sure. So I make do and do with my hands as much as I can like build my own chicken coop instead of buying one pre-made or paying someone else to build it for me.


    • Jeff says:

      I’d love to be a librarian were it not for the mounting threats to the profession (and the lack of absolutely directly relevant qualifications and experience to give me a ghost of a chance at this over-subscribed vocation). It’s certainly on the endangered list. What a really interesting reply: there was once a weekend of TV programmes on UK TV about a 1970s sitcom called The Good Life:
      There were manuals at the time about self-sufficiency. These, in 1st edition, would be, as all alternative culture becomes, valuable commodities. A couple of longstanding gurus on the subject said that Barbara and Tom (from the series) would realistically need 5-6 acres of land minimum to survive. Tough stuff.
      The realities of manual labour are of course very unromantic. As Eric said earlier about plumbing, it means rolling up your sleeves and delving into some brown stuff. I think the real problem though is of imagination. It’s hard to imagine how to even out fat and lean periods of self-employment, how to drum up business, how to chase debtors without losing future custom, etc. etc. And many passions don’t pay much if anything.
      Maybe it’s all about rolling sleeves up gradually and seeing what happens?


  4. Ste J says:

    We aren’t really programmed to be doing office work, as a species we have always relied on our own skills to survive. Now we have reached the limits of shelter and mass producing, we really should be looking at doing things better and focussing on maintaining our own planet. I would love a title like planet maintainer or something. There is something freeing about the use of our hands to create, I am bit cack handed myself but am always up for trying to sculpt an owl or something.


    • Jeff says:

      There was a flurry of interest during the 1970s in self-sufficiency. A pretty tough living that demands dedication. I’m not sure Crawford mentions climate change much. His focus is on the employment market and the economy. I suppose it depends on whether we assume that these things have to stay as they are. He wasn’t bigging it up for artisans. Hard to compete with machines in factories. But there is a certain amount of dissatisfaction out there. Think of the rise of Etsy. All a bit twee and middle-class (i.e. blue collar professions taken up by white collar people who can afford to do them carefully as hobbies). Strange that working class dissatisfaction so often results in taking night classes to get into offices!


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