Like Matthew Crawford, the author of the hip new anti-big business diatribe Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, I recently gave up my “knowledge” job for more physically strenuous and less intellectually engaging work. So far the results are mixed. If my last job seemed like one continuous and monotonous meeting about the company’s bottom line, my new gig could be done by a trained monkey. No doubt the company is training my primate replacement as we speak.
But that’s where the similarities end. Unlike me, Crawford spent most of his life in prestigious schools, eventually earning a doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Chicago. After graduation he landed his dream job at a Washington, D.C. think tank. Tragically, after only a couple of months of hard thinking, Crawford began to get Cubicle Fever. Like all young boys, he longed to be outdoors. Not only that, but his work began to seem pointless and enervating. Even debasing. He complained of being “always tired.” Crawford fell into a blue funk and a brown study.
So Crawford resigned his job with the think tank and went off to repair motorcycles and write books that combine updated elements of ’50s sociological critiques (The Organization Man) with ’60s-style metaphysics (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), the gist of which is that cube dwellers need to get a life. And a real job. A real job, of course, is one where you are not simply a cog in the machine and where you actually create something useful. Crawford wants all of us — or those of us who can be saved — to learn a trade or start a small business, but for godsakes stay out of that vile cesspool of corruption known as Cubicle Alley.
It’s an old story. Smart guys have been dumping their office jobs in favor of getting their hands dirty at least since Cincinnatus twice resigned the job of Roman dictator for that of dirt farmer. The trouble is, more people still want to be Roman dictator than dirt farmer. And that includes most dirt farmers. Just ask them.
CRAWFORD’S BOOK documents the many valuable life lessons learned and philosophical insights gleaned from fixing motorcycles, lessons he would never have learned at the think tank, and insights he would never have gleaned were it not for a doctorate in political philosophy. Nothing against motorcycle mechanics, but most simply don’t have the language and knowledge base to compare a leaky oil cylinder on a 1983 Honda Magna V45 with Heidegger’s question of being.
Still, Crawford has a point. I know I learned many valuable life lessons while working strenuous jobs, lessons that are simply unavailable to managers of staff of test engineers or facilitators of follow-up meetings. Here are but a few:
While working at Steak n Shake I learned that repeatedly dipping your hand into a vat of bubble gum ice cream will cause your fingers to freeze and hurt like hell. This became a lesson in how repetitive action can become dangerous when it becomes fixated.
While working as a bartender at the bowling alley I learned that there is always a little left over in the blender after you mix a frozen strawberry margarita, and if the boss isn’t around you get to drink this, and if the bar is busy and there is a lot left in the blender, you can get totally wasted. This became a lesson in the Metaphysics of Quality. At least that’s what I told myself to disguise the fact that I was an overweight 30-year-old single bartender with a drinking problem.
While working as a day laborer I learned that lifting 80 pounds of cement over and over again can cause the vertebrae in the lumbar region of the spine to tear, which can result in a painful and disfiguring injury. This became yet another lesson in how repetitive action can become dangerous when it becomes fixated.
While working as a clerk at K-Mart I learned that you could hide in the upper loft in the hardware department for up to 20 minutes before your supervisor would come looking for you. This became a lesson in how the hiding of man’s livelihood induces myths. Like the myth of the absentee hardware department clerk.
But by far the most valuable message I took away from Crawford’s book is that the best way to save this country and our souls is for more University of Chicago Ph.D. graduates to become mechanics, and more Harvard MBA graduates to become plumbers. Why not? Mechanics and plumbers earn great money, they provide a useful service, and they have yet to wreck the economy.
I couldn’t agree more.