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

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Augh, why didn't I scroll down before responding...


We get all our reliable US weather data by watching Twister and the Wizard of Oz.


Don't even say that word to refer to that movie (the first one). Curse and swear all you like, but don't you dare say...that word!

/wanders off grumbling about the billions of inaccuracies, myths, and misconceptions in it

Twister is not as bad as Atomic Twister LOL

BTW: anyone want a used flying cow?

you said the word!!!! shame!

kiteman, who was jokeing? you? seemed rather literal to me.......

goodhart, i think you mean 'aircow' (for those of you who don't know, that is a pinky and the brain reference.)

There was a famous "flying cow" in the movie Twister, which is what I was making reference to ;-)

i know. i just recently watched a bunch of pinky and the brain (best cartoon ever!) and one of the episodes had a tornado throwing a bunch of aircows and airpigs all over the place.

Just down the road from here is a church, partly built by the Normans, on a Saxon foundation, so reckon close on 1300 years old...it ain't wood.

Brick houses are, unfortunately, definitely not impervious to tornadoes, particularly the higher up you go on the Enhanced Fujita scale - once you get to EF4/5, forget it (though they are, of course, better in the less severe range, and infinitely better than a trailer!).

and they certainly don't build them out of BEAMS anymore...so they are more like cracker jack boxes and matchstick houses.

Most of the wood houses here look to have brick outers anyway !

It might take a scientist to design an experiment but it takes an engineer to make it work.
You cannot separate hand/brain the brain doesn't switch off when the hands are working. Just a comment on the "stay at home" kids, My experience has been that these "adult kids" want to get started with all the conveniences that they are used too, that their parents have taken a lifetime to achieve.

Well, to put forward another point. Anyone doing something very creative needs an imagination to think it up in the first place!

I think sometimes you can end up working on something, and it becomes a chore or task, your hands are moving, yet the mind is elsewhere.

Obviously the brain is still processing and controlling your arms, but your thoughts have nothing to do with it.
(also tends to be how accidents happen.)

My view is that "creative" has been hijacked in our culture, and is not now correlated with the act of "making" physical objects, and associated only with the arts - its a major leap for many people to see that what Jayefuu, HP and I do for a living is in fact incredibly "creative", and that creativity boils out of engineers.


I think creative as a word should relate to how the person brain works.

I guess in your area of work, it is the difference between reproducing something, which is mainly down to a set of engineering skills and following instructions and thinking up something new, developing it, making prototypes, making it better and so on.

Obviously the latter is a creative process.

By the same token, if someone can paint an accurate portrait of someone, is that just a skill set, or is that creativity? They are not creating it in their minds, they are just reproducing something exsiting?

...which rather makes my point, the root of the word "Engineer" isn't "engine", its ingenious - the french word root is obvious "Ingenieur",


hmm... i like that. i think being creative is something that everyone can do. all it is is doing something different, be it something completely new, or a variation in how things are done. i think that the reason people associate being creative with the arts is not because only the arts are creative, but that being creative is an art.

an art to me is a skill that can come naturally, but can and needs to be taught and cared for, like painting or martial arts (martial arts being a good example of an art that is not considered one of the 'arts').

some naturally like to create, while others need to try harder. but, the ability to create is what makes us human.

Someone else defined an art as anything with more than 4 variables, and a black art, one with more than 10.


soooo..... trigonometry is a black art? a black art to me is a skill steeped in wrongdoing. that's what makes it black.

A black art is one that looks like its steeped in wrongdoing, but actually requires extreme skill.

..... what do you mean 'looks like' the general definition of a black art is an evil practice. whether it requires great amounts of skill or not, the art is still evil, and therefore a black art.

They have 'created' a 2d image using a skill set. That's what I think anyway.

This article makes me so mad that I can't even respond appropriately, or maybe it's so bad that it's not worth responding to.

look at their user name. they're always angry. i don't know why you would object to the idea that everyone wishes to make some kind of important change, and that those who work with their hands can easily see these changes via the effects of their labor....

Don't make assumptions as to why the article made me mad because you won't get it right.

about the user name.... tell me, why does this article make you mad? as far as i can tell there's nothing offensive about it. just two sides of an argument about which style of life is better. each makes valid points, and doesn't really seem to bash on the other side....

She's not as bad as her username suggests...

If you took the question literally, you can't really do any work with your head except if you are a philosopher or something. You need hands to grab tools, put parts together, or actually make stuff. Even if you were a philosopher you would need hands to write down whatever you thought.

When my grandfather was in high school, the subject was called "Manual Training." My father's generation called it "Wood (or Metal) Shop." By the time I was in high school (early 1980s), the subject was labeled "Industrial Arts" and my son now takes "Technology Education" class. Does anyone besides me notice a trend, here? I think it is a (pathetic) reflection on our over-specialized society. In the United States, we still educate with the factory school model, but where are the factories for students to work in, once they graduate? Not in the United States!

Working with one's hands (as well as with one's wits) requires a much different, (and I would argue) broader skill set than working with the hand-eye/keyboard-mouse-touchscreen interface alone. Even members of the professions would benefit from at least a minimum of training with hand tools IMHO, because contrary to the beliefs held dear by so many the so-called real world is not controlled by keyclicks. But I'm sure in this forum I am "preaching to the choir."

Well, my class was just called "Technology" but that's because it included woodwork, metalwork, electronics, graphic design (as in blueprints, not websites and packaging), textiles and food.

As for giving everyone a minimum of training with hand tools, I'm all for a breadth of education covering philosophically valuable skills as well as "vocational" ones, but education has to be at least partly constrained by what students will find practical and useful in their everyday lives, which sadly means increasing amounts of IT and decreasing amounts of shop classes.

That's pretty much the national picture in the UK.

I saw that transition mentioned above in my area: when I attended 6th grade, we had Home Economics AND wood and metal shop classes, for both genders. By the time I got to the 9th grade, the Home Ecc classes had been dropped and "SHOP" class became Industrial Arts (and then included metals, plastics, and some wood).

What do you call the classes where you use laminates? Plastics? Or composites?

The subject is not getting more specialised, it is getting broader.

Last time I was a pupil in "shop" classes, all we worked with was wood (lumps of cheap pine) and metal (iron and brass).

I was working with a high school kid a couple of weeks ago, making a storage unit to his own design. It was made of pine, plywood, MDF and glass, with copper detailing. I was helping him produce a curved lamination, using a traditional clamping technique called the "Spanish Windlass".

In the next workshop, kids were soldering components onto circuit boards they had etched themselves, prior to fitting into lighting units that were made of two kinds of plastic, one part blow-moulded, the other vacuum moulded.

A third class were analysing the results of surveys they'd done of the reaction to their of their digitally-rendered designs for potential products.

That's all the same subject.

What would you call it?

Your programme sounds very much like what had previously been called "Industrial Arts" in our midwestern school district. Unfortunately, in our area students now have very limited access to these classes in American public (K-12) schools at this time. What are the career prospects for graduates of those classes in the UK (and are there jobs for them to go to when they graduate)?