The Value of Manual Labor

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The New York Times magazine has a great essay from Matthew B. Crawford, an author who also happens to own a small motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Va. In “The Case for Working With Your Hands,” Crawford examines the value of manual (as in hands-on) work versus the abstract nature of most white-collar work. It’s well worth a read as Crawford chose his path after aiming for a gig as a college-educated knowledge worker (he has a Ph.D. in political philosophy.)

From the story:

After finishing a Ph.D. in political philosophy at the University of Chicago in 2000, I managed to stay on with a one-year postdoctoral fellowship at the university’s Committee on Social Thought. The academic job market was utterly bleak. In a state of professional panic, I retreated to a makeshift workshop I set up in the basement of a Hyde Park apartment building, where I spent the winter tearing down an old Honda motorcycle and rebuilding it. The physicality of it, and the clear specificity of what the project required of me, was a balm.

Crawford drills into a subject close to my heart and formerly calloused hands. As a professional keyboard pecker, I’m often at odds with my former career path and childhood aspirations to solid blue-collarism. It was in high school that I decided to opt out of college and work for a living. After a stint helping out my Brother, the Plumber, I became a roto-rooter guy. From there I worked as a technician for an aerospace company. These were the two jobs I held the longest, with several other small gigs in between (temp work, crewed for an environmental clean-up company, landscaping). But all of them required actual, physical labor. I had calloused hands and an aching back and often stunk. Then I decided to go to school as none of these held much long-term hope.

So that’s how I ended up here, reading Crawford’s essay and completely understanding what he’s getting at. I’ll never forget the time I was working from home while there were contractors working on my house. Let me tell you, there is nothing that makes you feel more like a soft-handed sissy than watching workers doing physical work while you’re busy pecking away at a keyboard.

Here’s one particular paragraph I enjoyed from Crawford:

Seeing a motorcycle about to leave my shop under its own power, several days after arriving in the back of a pickup truck, I don’t feel tired even though I’ve been standing on a concrete floor all day. Peering into the portal of his helmet, I think I can make out the edges of a grin on the face of a guy who hasn’t ridden his bike in a while. I give him a wave. With one of his hands on the throttle and the other on the clutch, I know he can’t wave back. But I can hear his salute in the exuberant “bwaaAAAAP!” of a crisp throttle, gratuitously revved. That sound pleases me, as I know it does him. It’s a ventriloquist conversation in one mechanical voice, and the gist of it is “Yeah!”

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