Nisi Berryman
by Nisi Berryman
Mon Jun 22nd 2009 at 2:26pm UTC

Must We All Be Knowledge Workers?

Matthew Crawford’s observations on the nature of work, notably manual labor, struck me as extremely valuable. Per Crawford:

“Many of us do work that feels more surreal than real. Working in an office, you often find it difficult to see any tangible result from your efforts. What exactly have you accomplished at the end of any given day? “

His essay explores the rewards/fulfillment of working with one’s hands, and rightly notes that many “knowledge workers” (myself sometimes included) are often denied a real sense of gratification or creativity.

“Ultimately it is enlightened self-interest… that will compel us to take a fresh look at the trades… For anyone who feels ill-suited by disposition to spend his days sitting in an office, the question of what a good job looks like is now wide open.”

Not to mention, Crawford notes, that many jobs such as his – repairing motorcycles – simply can’t be outsourced. He might over-romanticize some of the truly dirty work that is performed but his essay and hopefully his book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work asks some powerful questions.

Do you feel accomplished at the end of a long day sitting in front of the computer or in meetings?

10 Responses to “Must We All Be Knowledge Workers?”

  1. tpk-nyc Says:

    This is why the plurality of respondents to the Crimson poll (referenced earlier on this site) wanted a dream job in “the arts.” Such jobs allow one to balance, status, intellect and physical accomplishment. That is the ultimate for elite, ultra-Creative-Class the people: to earn a living by actually designing or creating something (as opposed to marketing or other related fields). These careers have always been competitive, but now they are so oversubscribed as to be nearly impossible to achieve without an extraordinarily expensive education (Harvard, anyone?) and private resources. Status is key. In contemporary society, artistic/creative jobs are higher in status than traditional white collar jobs, which are higher than skilled blue collar jobs, and so on down the line.

  2. Michael Wells Says:

    I’m fortunate to work in a field, grantwriting, where there are deadlines when a proposal has to be finished and a means of judging success (did it get funded?) However, it’s a little abstract and sometimes delivering Meals on Wheels or working in the yard or around the house gives a more concrete sense of satisfaction.

    I once noticed that many of the metal sculptors I knew had learned to weld in the shipyards, or even still worked there for a day job, so the artist/blue collar line can be hazy. I have a cabinetmaker friend who graduated from Reed, a notoriously cerebral school — I suspect all of those dorm discussions about Nietzsche somehow affect his furniture.

    Richard talks about this in the Rise chapter “the machine shop and the hair salon”. tpk-nyc is right, status is a big part of it. Welding an abstract form gets a lot more respect than welding something that is actually useful.

  3. Jarie Bolander Says:

    Creative work can take longer to realize accomplishments than physical labor. The progress that knowledge workers see is not like the carpenter or brick layer, where the world takes on a different physical form based on their labors.

    I sometimes get to the end of my day and wonder what did I really do. Since I can’t physically point to anything, it can sometimes feel like the day has been wasted.

    The real difference in the “knowledge worker” as opposed to the physical worker is scale. A human can only physically do so much while a knowledge workers ideas and work product can scale beyond their capacity (look at the Internet). Accomplishments might manifest themselves less frequently but when they hit, they can hit big.

  4. Jamie Says:

    I find the terms of discussion intriguing, and am curious about the suppositions embedded in our words. For example, part of the appeal of joining the creative class seems to be liberation from the “hive mind” of corporate cubical culture and the opportunity to practice something that might reasonably be said to resemble knowledge.

    Compelling physical work involves the body. Of the individual practicing it, there may be a vast spectrum of possibilities and potentials ranging from the industrial cog who turns the screw all the way to the sculptor who writes poetry in stone.

    Some questions might be thus: where is the body of the subject? Of the object? For myself as a bodyworker (Rolfer) what I experience everyday are people whom are professionally disembodied if not dissociated. They can twitter but barely stand on their own two feet.

    I think the notion of manual labor as meaningful work speaks to a deep alienation between we modern humans and our environments. It speaks to a need for relationship that nurtures the human creature. We do not know very well how to touch or be touched by the world around us.

  5. hayden fisher Says:

    I’ve ventured beyond my law practice into historic real estate renovation, restaurants and other results-oriented disciplines solely because doing these things provides more of a sense of accomplishment and a tangible piece of work product than does writing a great brief or giving a fantastic closing argument.

  6. sm2 Says:

    I found Crawford’s essay compelling, and am now reading his book. His assertions related to the creative thinking involved in the trades directly relates to Richard’s points in tROCC. However, Crawford’s somewhat sardonic diatribe about Richard’s work appeared flippant, categorical and intellectually lazy. (I had to wonder if perhaps Crawford’s stint in a conservative think tank has scarred him, but this may be more indicative of the type of “knowledge work” being done in that particular think tank rather than a grand indictment against all types of knowledge work.)

    I do appreciate Crawford’s viewpoint about work and the different types of thinking involved. Like Hayden, I have purposefully maintained my own “blue collar” skills. I have found the thinking involved in that work incredibly satisfying. Working for 12 hours restoring a 1917 bungalow requires a certain type of thinking. That level of focus served my “knowledge work” well. (God knows the physical effort certainly helped me sleep better than I ever have writing articles!)

    Bill Roorbach wrote an essay, “Into Wood”, for The Atlantic several years ago describing his own experience in dealing with these two types of work.

    I think Crawford has contributed a valuable perspective about work. I’m enjoying his thought-provoking points. I’ve known many brilliant people who work in the trades who laugh about their “dirty little secret”- they have big brains, make good money and find the work infinitely satisfying. Sure some of the work may be “dirty”, but that’s relative compared to the “dirty” aspects of some knowledge work!

  7. Wil Says:

    The dean of the school of architecture told us in our first year about the importance of having “two paths”, one of which was for us , of course architecture. He had come to a revelation similar to my parents, and grandparent’s idea that we should have a 19th century and a modern skill set. I think being able to do some type of manual work, beyond gardening, is a good idea, and leads to greater feeling of well-being.

    One thing about architecture is that your work is very tangible. I like being able to drive around the San Francisco, Vancouver, and Seattle areas and see “my” projects. One of them is what is likely the ugliest second story additon in Berkeley, that I did while I was at school, should have been torn down years ago. I occasionally stop in a and talk to the client who, for some reason is still happy with it thirty years later. I wish he would hire me to fix it.

  8. Wendy Says:

    Maybe part of the issue is “work-life balance” — and what you do when not at your paid job. If you renovate an old home or contribute to the community in some way, or teach your child to ride a bike or ski — you see tangible results.

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  10. Nisi Says:

    Thanks Melissa! Seeing how expensive and often irrelevant a college education is these days, I would hope to see a return to the honored tradition of apprenticeship for tradespeople, artisans and others. A gap year to get some life experience before embarking on more studies may be right for many students too. For some, college is essential but often it is just a fun detour (not that anything is wrong with that!).