Building a Better Career
I can most definitely relate to Michael Crawford’s observations:
When Matthew Crawford finished his doctorate in political philosophy at the University of Chicago, he took a job at a Washington think tank. “I was always tired,” he writes, “and honestly could not see the rationale for my being paid at all.” He quit after five months and started doing motorcycle repair in a decaying factory in Richmond, Va. This journey from philosopher manqué to philosopher-mechanic is the arc of his new book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work. It’s appropriate that it arrives in May, the month when college seniors commence real life. Skip Dr. Seuss, or a tie from Vineyard Vines, and give them a copy for graduation.
The graduates won’t even skim Shop Class, of course. But maybe, five years from now, when they can’t understand why their high-paying jobs at Micron Consulting seem pointless and enervating, Crawford’s writing will show them a way forward. It’s not an insult to say that Shop Class is the best self-help book that I’ve ever read. Almost all works in the genre skip the “self” part and jump straight to the “help.” Crawford rightly asks whether today’s cubicle dweller even has a respectable self. Many of us work in jobs with no discernible products or measurable results. We manage brands and implement initiatives, all the while basing our self-esteem on the opinions of others.
Compare that with the motorcycle mechanic. Instead of the vague threat of a performance review, the mechanic faces the tactile problem of a bike that won’t start. He tests various theories and deploys actual tools. The sign of success is a roaring engine. In Shop Class, Crawford talks about fixing bikes and the analytical lessons he draws from his gearhead days. It’s kind of like Heidegger and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In one virtuoso episode, an oil seal on a 1983 Honda Magna V45 becomes a lesson in how curiosity can be dangerous when it becomes fixated. We become self-absorbed, even self-indulgent. The ideal, when working on a bike, is to keep the customer in mind, to realize that messing with the bike (satisfying our curiosity) ultimately needs to be curtailed by consideration of the wider world—i.e., the customer, who doesn’t want to overpay. As Crawford points out, much “knowledge work” lacks this element of practical wisdom, of opening out into the experience of others. Just go read a few dissertations.
While doing the work of a mechanic provides intellectual challenges and the intrinsic satisfactions of completing problems from start to finish, Crawford knows that working in the trades is seen as déclassé and too limiting for a college graduate. And then he goes on to show how stupid that viewpoint is.
Of course, from my point of view, I see how lessons learned in a trade can be reapplied in an office. Reviewer Michael Agger’s language doesn’t suggest this as an option, but the “enervating” careers that he mentions can be made to have discernible products and measurable results. They may necessarily have to be traced in the longer term — building a house rather than installing a kitchen — but anywhere there is an objective, there is an opportunity to measure progress. Furthermore, it may require a little bit more work on the part of managers, but even employees who are applying their time on some small, discrete component of a larger project can be enabled to see the usefulness of their tasks.
Which is not to disagree with the suggestion that young adults learn a trade. There is a risk, however, of romanticizing blue collars too enthusiastically. We have our cogs, and we certainly have our tedium. But even those, properly approached, offer opportunity for progress in our broader personal occupation of building a healthy frame of mind.