Sunday, November 29, 2009

Soulcraft (Sort of a Book Report)

One of my hobbies is woodworking and home remodeling. I fondly remember my 7th grade Wood Shop class. Our teacher was Mr. Pauls, who was an older man. Very patient and gentlemanly and perfect for the class he taught.
Our first assignment was to make a sanding block out of a small piece of pine. It was supposed to be about 1 1/2 inches wide by about 3 inches long and, of course, as square as possible on all corners.
The piece of pine given to us was a bit larger than the supposed eventual dimensions. We were given as tools a block plane, a handsaw and the vice on the shop bench. That was it. .
Mine ended up far from perfect. It was a bit short on one side, not very square in every respect and the ends were a bit rough because I had a little trouble mastering the plane on the side of the wood where the wood grains were exposed. Using a block plane can be a little trickier to use than at first glance. .
I learned a lot from Mr. Pauls in that class.
I never did take the Metal Shop class although in retrospect, I wish I had.
I have a couple of clients that run a machine shop and make aircraft parts for some of the airplane manufacturers here in Wichita. It is a small shop, about 10 employees, and these guys can do almost anything with any kind of metal. Their handiwork and precision is really amazing.
I wish now that I had taken that Metal Shop class because I would have maybe learned a few tricks of the trade that might have helped me later on in life.
Like the time I overtightened a screw on the points inside the distributor of my old '69 VW bus and ended up ruining the distributor. Oh well, it gave me the opportunity to buy a new Porsche distributor which added maybe 2 hp.
I thought it was very cool to successfully install a Porsche distributor on a VW engine.
. But working with wood or metal was not to be my calling in life. As I think back on how I ended up doing what I do for a living, I recall a song by Supertramp. The song is entitled "The Logical Song" and some of the lyrics are as follows.
. Then they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible, logical, responsible, practical And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable, clinical, intellectual, cynical
(and later on in the song)
. They said watch what you say or they'll be calling you a radical, a liberal, fanatical, criminal Won't you sign up your name, we'd like to feel you're acceptable, respectable, presentable, a vegetable
. I sometimes find it a bit ironic how I ended up doing what I do for a living. I am not sure I fit the mold. I am not sure anybody really does.
. But I am not really complaining. I like what I do. But I also like being a bit ornery and trying not to conform to what I am maybe supposed to do (or be) all the time.
Sharon had recently suggested that I read Shopcraft as Soulcraft by Matthew B Crawford. In part it is about the fact that he had been educated and trained to be someone or something, very intellectual, that he discovered that he didn't really like as much as he liked working with his hands. He ended up starting a motorcycle repair shop.
. There is an old adage that says:
. "Do what you love, the money will follow."
. Not really sure how true that is. If I might, I could rephrase it as:
. "Do what you love, the satisfaction will follow."
. The book Sharon recommended is full of this kind of insight and reflection. I recommend it.
. The author is no dummy. He has a doctorate degree and I am sure he is successful in life being the person he was educated to be.
. But one of the themes in his book is that making and fixing things with our hands has lost much importance in today's society. Even though I don't do this for a living, I have always enjoyed working with my hands and one point that Crawford makes is that it can be quite noble to work with your hands.
. He compares being a mechanical repairman with being a doctor in that both professions involve the repair of something that the repairman did not design originally. This can make it much more difficult, because the overall picture and theory of the design is not always readily apparent. It can require some careful thought and analysis.
. Crawford also says that part of the enjoyment to being a repairman is the opportunity to get completely mentally involved in the activity. I can do that sometimes, even with my regular profession. But doing it while fixing something with your hands can be very enjoyable also. There can be a really enjoyable sense of accomplishment when the job is done.
In doing some electrical work on my home awhile back, I was trying to diagnose a problem we were having with some light switches. It involved some 3 way switches. The use of 3 way switches was to enable you to turn off or on some lights either at the top or bottom of a stairway in our home. I spent a lot of time just trying to figure out why the wiring had been done originally in the manner it was. I finally determined that the electrician had just screwed up and had connected some wires incorrectly.
. But as I was working on it I realized that I had been concentrating very hard and my mind really got into a zone of extreme concentration. Then when I eventually figured out the problem and repaired it correctly, there was a really nice feeling of satisfaction.
. Crawford has written the book in a very scholarly manner. He quotes Aristotle and Pirsig frequently throughout the book. He includes many anecdotes from his experiences repairing motorcycles and because of that, the book is enjoyable and meaningful.
. At least is was to me.
Many of the readers of this are well acquainted with the joy and frustrations related to working on mechanical vehicles such as motorcycles and scooters. I specifically mention Domingo Chang and Stacy, who have indirectly encouraged me to take on more of my own maintenance chores with my scooter. I am sure that I may never become a full blooded mechanic. But their examples give us all an insight into their world of maintenance and repair.
It is something to be appreciated and encouraged.
. Crawford's book is highly recommended by me.


  1. I don't think you are anything like what an accountant should be. Not even a Zen accountant I don't think. On the other hand I always wished I had been trained with my hands instead of left to roam with my head. I'm just glad I didn't end an accountant.

  2. I'm truly honored to be mentioned in the same sentence as Dom Chang!

    (The other) Stacey read that Soulcraft book and enjoyed it. As someone in the IT field, I can certainly relate to the premise. However, I take more of a middle-of-the-road view than the author: I feel the "desk jobs" like mine serve a purpose just as much as the hands-on jobs do.

    There's certainly satisfaction in building (or fixing) a physical object.

    I also get plenty of satisfaction from finding (and fixing) a problem after wading through thousands of lines of software code.

    So, I'm not a fan of the attitude that one kind of work is "better" than another. We all have our talents, and if we're lucky enough, we can make a living and have a feeling of satisfaction on a job well done.

  3. Conch,
    It's a good thing we are not all accountants. What a mess that would be.

  4. Stacy (& Stacey)
    All jobs are important and everybody finds their own niche in life, all equally meaningful.
    Part of what the author was trying to say, in my humble opinion, is that America has become has become more of a service economy than a manufacturing or hands on economy. It may, or may not, be a good thing.
    I know I can really get into a "zone" while working at my regular job. Interruptions can really drive me crazy.
    Thanks for stopping by and best wishes,

  5. I've made a living with both my brains and my hands. Come to think of it, the "hands" part made me more money!

    Seriously, for me it's more the idea of being able to do something as opposed to doing it all the time. I don't want to be dependent on somebody else and be taken advantage of in the process.

    Is learning how to "turn a phrase" anything like turning a piece of metal in a lathe?

  6. I knew you would like the book and find meaning in his words. You've done an excellent report on Crawford and what it means to you. I'm so glad this post was among the first I read this morning as it brought me great joy to read it. I too enjoyed Crawford and when I'm on campus, the one he and Pirsig walked, I sometimes think, I am traveling the same ground that they both did and I feel a connection with them--their words have touched me.

    Excellent post! Thanks you.