The Lost Satisfactions of Manual CompetenceMay 22nd, 2020 · 126 comments
Chris Anderson opens his 2012 book, Makers, with a story about his maternal grandfather, Fred Hauser. Anderson recalls a childhood experience spending a summer with his grandfather at his bungalow in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles.
“He announced that we would be making a four-stroke gasoline engine and that he had ordered a kit we could build together,” Anderson writes. Familiar with constructing models, Anderson assumed that the box containing the kit would be filled with numerous numbered parts and assembly instructions. “Instead, there were three big blocks of metal and a crudely cast engine casting. And a large blue-print, a single sheet folded many times.”
As Anderson recalls, his grandfather deployed the standard hobby machinist equipment kept in his garage — “a drill press, a band saw, a jig saw, grinders, and, most important, a full-size metal lathe” — to slowly extract and polish from the blocks the many pieces that ultimately fit together into a functioning engine. “We had conjured a precision machine from a lump of metal. We were a mini-factory, and we could make anything.”
There’s great fulfillment in applying skill to slowly create something useful that didn’t previously exist — a reaction that’s likely embedded in our genes as a lost nudge toward survival-enhancing paleolithic productivity. Matt Crawford perhaps summarizes this reality best in Shop Class as Soulcraft, when he writes: “The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy.”
And then we consider our current moment.
For most “non-essential” workers, the past two months have delivered a professional experience that’s exactly the opposite of Fred Hauser running a metal lathe in his California garage. Instead of manifesting ourselves concretely in the world, we endlessly pass digital messages back and forth, taking breaks only to talk to each other about these messages over cramped video conference screens.
Before the pandemic, the ritual of traveling to a physical office helped obfuscate the disembodied nature of most knowledge work. But when this element was stripped away, the intrinsic abstraction of our efforts became impossible to miss. Fred Hauser ended his spring with a working four-stroke engine. We’ll end ours with an email inbox fuller than when we began.
This observation matters because as many consider a deep reset in response to recent events, work has emerged as an important topic.
There’s something uniquely misery-making about days spent in a Makework Matrix of ceaseless digital communication that doesn’t seem to generate much beyond additional digital communication — we’re simply not wired for this as a species. Not surprisingly, I’ve received an increasing number of messages from Office Space Neos, tumbled into a state of introspection by the disruption of the lockdowns, and now wondering if they can tolerate this digitized busyness for the decades that remain before their retirement.
I don’t have a comprehensive answer to offer at the moment, but here are a few thoughts that come to mind about the responses to this reality we might see in the months and years ahead:
- More solo entrepreneurs and freelancers experimenting with radical work setups that prioritize focused craft and minimize the digital ephemera that they were told was critical to crushing it, but might instead be crushing their soul.
- A shift in entrepreneurial circles aways from digital endeavors — apps, content production — and toward small-batch physical manufacturing (Anderson’s book offers a useful survey of this general shift; a good specific case study is my friend Forest Prichard’s recent book on starting a farm.)
- Hopefully: larger knowledge work organizations will also finally start taking workflow seriously; moving away from communication free-for-alls that turn everyone into a mix of human network routers and glorified administrative assistants, and toward more structured and focused work (stay tuned on this: I have a big new book on this particular topic coming out next year).
In the meantime, our current pause presents a good opportunity to think critically about what “work” means to you now, and what it could mean in a reset life. Or at the very least, give you a push to dust off the metal lathe in the back of your garage.