Is working with your hands better than just with your head?

I saw this on the BBC, and was so impressed I've reproduced the whole thing here:

By Tom de Castella Journalist

If the new year and inevitable return to work leaves you yearning for change, is working with your hands the answer?

The time for reflection is nigh - a new year, a new you. But is that workstation you've slotted back into looking depressingly familiar?

As millions of workers drag themselves back into the office to contemplate another 12 months of drudgery, many will be wondering if they are in the right job.

Writer and mechanic Matthew Crawford thinks a lot of us would be better off trading in our mouse for a screwdriver. His recent book, The Case for Working With Your Hands, has been a huge hit in his native United States, praised by critics and politicians alike.

Mr Crawford, who used to run a Washington think tank but now mends motorbikes, says it is no wonder people are miserable at work. Jobs have become so specialised and process driven that it is hard to see what difference you are making. And in those rare cases where one's impact is obvious, the result may seem pointless.


"A lot of us are plagued with a sense of uselessness," he says. "I've created a brand - what good is that? So I've persuaded people to buy something they didn't need."

When running a think tank, he says he honestly could not see the rationale for being paid at all, and wondered what tangible goods or services he was providing to anyone.

Then he opened a motorbike repair shop and was surprised to find he was not just happier, but more intellectually stimulated. The life of a tradesman is a varied existence, mixing practicality with logic and problem solving, he says.

"Imagine you're an electrician, you're installing a conduit pipe and have to bend around the corners to make everything line up. It's the kind of work that requires improvisation and adaptation. It can never be reduced to following set procedures."

Not only that, the earning potential for a tradesman is greater than in many office jobs. For instance, a skilled mechanic is likely to earn more than a sociology graduate working in publishing, he argues.

Not everything about manual work is rosy. He warns that furniture making is not a good career move - Ikea can undercut you by employing workers in China for a fraction of the price. But a range of trades that need to be done on site cannot be outsourced to low wage economies.

After new year introspection, January and February are traditionally one of the busiest periods for moving jobs. Mr Crawford believes doing a trade can make you happier.

'Middle-class paradox'

"It offers small moments of confirmation, like when the bike you're mending starts up and runs. Small satisfactions like that can be elusive at a huge organisation with vast layers of management, where the criteria by which you're measured are ambiguous."

The Times columnist Giles Coren recently tried working with his hands for the BBC Two show Giles and Sue Live the Good Life. Despite his on-screen schtick of appearing to hate everything the duo are asked to do, he fell in love with it.

"I found chasing the chickens and weeding the allotment immensely satisfying," he says. "The pain... was making the television show."

He agrees with Mr Crawford that modern life has been blighted by a series of alienating processes, often carried out on mobile phone, laptop and e-mail. In this way, his chosen career - journalism - has been stripped of its sense of adventure and human contact.

"Even 15 years ago when I started as a reporter, you left the office to do a story. You went to investigate, visited people and used the cuttings library. Now I just sit... and Google. It's terrible, I wish I was a fireman."

Despite his columnist's salary, he is jealous of those whose jobs have a clear purpose like the gardener and cleaner.

"My gardener Brian comes in to do the garden every two weeks. He takes his shirt off in the summer and smokes a rollie. I can see him through the window, but I'm sitting indoors, staring at the screen to pay for this guy - it's the classic middle-class paradox."

Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of advertising firm Ogilvy UK, agrees that working with your hands does offer greater satisfaction in the short term. But manual workers lack something many of us crave - influence.

Jobs like advertising where you "work with your head" may seem futile, but the ideas they come up with really do change the world, he says.

"Five years ago someone worked out that you could have one size lid for the three different sizes of coffee cup that cafes have. Ok, it's emphatically not the cure for cancer, but it's through millions of little ideas like this that we get richer as a society."

Perception of value

Television dramas like Mad Men depict the office to be a place of invigorating competition, sexual tension and creativity. However stylised the portrayal, Mr Sutherland says there is a definite buzz to working around like-minded people - one that tradesmen miss out on.

"People partly enjoy work because it's social, but working with your hands can be lonely."

And he believes that experienced trades people are often economically undervalued due to the perverse way that consumers ascribe worth. He cites the behavioural economist Dan Ariely's story about a locksmith.

As a young apprentice, the tradesman used to take half an hour to mend a lock, at which point he'd be thanked wholeheartedly and given a tip.

When he became more experienced, the locksmith could fix a similar problem in a minute. He charged the same rate and completed the job much faster. But instead of being pleased at his speed, customers complained about his rates and refused to tip him.

"It's about our perception of value." And in this respect the skilled tradesman will often struggle, he says.

In the course of researching his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain de Botton concludes that we all want to make a difference in our job, however banal that change may be.

"At the end of the working day we want to feel we've left the planet slightly healthier, tidier, saner than it was at the beginning," he says. "I'm not necessarily talking of huge changes - the difference might merely involve sanding a stair banister, removing the squeak on a door or reuniting someone with their lost luggage."

And yet, it is a mistake to romanticise working with your hands, he warns.

"At heart, what you're talking about is the charm of craft work. And it's my sense this can happen in places far removed from the workshop. If you're writing computer code you are in a sense displaying many of the same skills as a craftsperson, even if the finished product can't be held or touched."

But following the financial crisis, Mr de Botton says attitudes to all types of work may be changing. He detects a move away from the middle-class idea that work lies "at the heart of our self-fulfillment", to the working-class view of employment as a means of feeding yourself and your family.

So maybe job satisfaction is slipping down the list of what is important when it comes to work.

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Ah, yes, it was called Shop Class as Soulcraft here in the states. Haven't read it, but it does sound interesting.

The point about there always being work for people working on houses isn't completely true. The recession here has dampened need for that as many of my relatives have told me. Then again, work has been down across the board.
Kiteman (author)  fungus amungus6 years ago
The need will probably depend on your market - those of us posting here are, naturally, less likely to pay for the services of a plumber, joiner or builder for a small job.

However, those who would have upgraded to a larger home a few years ago are more likely instead to have an extension built.

I'm not talking theoretical, but real observations from people in the field. It is not rock solid. My relatives work in wood and metal and need for both are down in both upscale luxury homes and more standard homes in their areas. They're still working and making a living, it's just less than before with the recession.
Kiteman (author)  fungus amungus6 years ago
That's what I mean - repairs or decorative additions will be down, but large-scale additions to living space will be up (in the UK, there are a growing number of people living at home into their twenties and thirties because they cannot afford to buy a starter home, or raise the deposit for a rental, but their parents' homes have risen in value over the last two or three decades, so they can afford to add space to the house by increasing their mortgage debt.

You're assuming my relatives do repairs or decorative additions. That's a smaller portion of what they do, in fact. Wood and metal are used for both modifications and new construction.
Kiteman (author)  fungus amungus6 years ago
OK, sorry.
gmjhowe Kiteman6 years ago
Hehe, Kiteman is just used to the brick built houses in the UK.

Wood frame built houses are on the uptake over here though, I wonder if those kind of skills are in more demand over here, I would assume there are less people doing them.
Kiteman (author)  gmjhowe6 years ago
I can't decide if wooden houses would last less time over here (because they'll rot), or they'll last longer (because they won't get blown away by a tornado...

i'm pretty sure a wooden house will get blown down by tornadoes just as easily.

however, even brick houses have wooden frames in them. perhaps not as much frameing, but its still there.

i don't know how things are done in the uk but over here we have wood that is chemically treated so that it wont rot. it is really effective stuff. and there are still houses here that were built a hundred years ago (which was obviously not made with treated wood) so wood is good stuff, even for english weather. not to say that brick is bad, not at all.
Kiteman (author)  badideasrus6 years ago
(That was a joke post...)
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