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A Hands-on New Years Resolution
Among the many resolutions I have made this year, there is only one I don’t dread: working with my hands again. So far in 2010, I have made a week’s worth of dinners from scratch, and I’m enrolled in a stained glass class at CPCC that starts next week. I hope to try gardening in the spring, and if I’m still feeling adventurous, I may attempt to service my own brakes.
There is something especially rewarding about reaching a tangible end of a project. I spent the earlier part of my career as an industrial designer, creating objects to be manufactured and sold to consumers at retail, many of which have been a huge source of pride.
Since then, I have transformed into what is now commonly called a “knowledge worker”, trading in the more physically creative aspects of my job for consulting roles, helping companies develop new business ideas and understand its consumers. While I have found these positions in the financial and energy sectors gratifying in a different way, I fondly recall long hours in a model shop, laboriously shaping prototypes out of foam and clay, taking things apart and recombining them, cursing my mistakes and testing out the finished models on colleagues.
I first realized what was missing after reading Matthew Crawford’s essay in an issue of the New York Times Magazine last year called “The Case for Working with Your Hands”. Crawford, a philosopher-turned-motorcycle-mechanic, argues that our current work culture, much of it in front of a computer screen, detaches us from the repercussions of our decisions. He suggests that we have overlooked lessons of humility taught to us by manual trial-and-error, since digital speed and data now supersede the rules of physics. Do we unfairly look down upon trades like plumbing or homebuilding? Can we really consider a finished PowerPoint deck an actual work deliverable (as opposed to building a real deck in your backyard)?
Sure, this sentiment is partially credited to the exodus of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. The trend has given way to a growing services sector that is rooted in an information economy. But in doing so, we not only risk losing unique, hands-on expertise in a specific trade; we might have also lost a bit of passion for our intangible work as well. The results of “thinking work”, though arguably just as intensive and fruitful, produce a less direct connection than, say, knitting a sweater for a friend or installing a shelf you designed yourself.
There is still something to be said about the ability to point to something and say, “I did that.” In fact, we tend to place a disproportionately high value on objects that we create with our own sweat, even if they may not nearly be of professional quality. This phenomenon has actually been documented by behavioral scientists as the Ikea Effect, and it is part of the reason we still keep our children’s questionable arts-and-crafts projects around, long after they have given us permission to get rid of them.
So is it possible to recapture the spirit and passion of working with our hands as we approach our knowledge-workforce roles? Although everyone seems to agree that factory jobs are gone for good, perhaps more “tangible” industries like motorsports or even the headquarters addition of the manufacturer Electrolux can regain prominence alongside Charlotte’s service industries. Heck, I’m sure folks would be just as proud (if not more so) if a solar panel factory moved in next to Apple’s less-tangible data center.
In the meantime, I call on my fellow citizens to diversify their skills and relearn the lessons of creativity and self-expression of dealing with stuff, be it dirt or scissors or parsley or a hammer. Pick up a new hobby that unlocks that inner furniture maker or seamstress. Not only will you realize how fun it could be, you’ll probably discover (through trial and error, of course) new ways of thinking that inspire the other moments of your work week.