Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Case for Working With Your Hands

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.


There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children.


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.


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 ... 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.


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.


Sometimes I really like my job for this reason. If I get bored in the office and feel the need to work with my hands, I can go down to the garage and observe, tinker, lend a (very novice) helping hand, hang out and learn the ins and outs of an isolated system being currently worked on (a gas pump failure, vehicle overheating, vacuum leaks, etc.). Beyond the learning, there is a certain immediate gratification with every small step you take while working with your hands. Whether it's drilling down a line of steel bolts, cutting up stainless steel at step 1 of a project, or suggesting a solution to a mechanical problem that hasn't yet been thought of because you're really just an outside eye; there is a certain immediate gratification that is not reached when pressing save and send on a spreadsheet. Then, I can go back into the office, sort of refreshed (perspective?), and continue at the desk doing desk stuff.

Writing invoices, preparing ad campaigns, researching tech, gathering/organizing statistical information, government bs, payroll, cheques, organizing schedules, preparing for operations, etc.; soft skills? There really isn't an immediate satisfaction. The variety is certainly there, but something is definitely not. Maybe, more specifically, it's an immediate recognition of your worth. I think that's part of the reason I like work road trips so much. At the end of the trip I know exactly how much I made and saved the company. Granted I spend 95% of my time at the desk, but if it wasn't for that 5% in the garage and on the road, I most certainly wouldn't still be at the PHD Group.

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