Tag Archive for 'education'

Dirty Hands and Cleaner Souls

A few weeks ago I read a book called Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford. It has the audacity to suggest that work our society tends to undervalue, the kind that often involves dirt and sweat, is actually good for the soul.  The ideas in the book are compelling, so let’s explore them.

photo from flickr.com/hiddenTreasure

photo from flickr.com/hiddenTreasure

Before going further, let me apologize for the length of time since my last update.  In addition to my day job, I’ve got a role in a play, and I’m working on another creative project that I am racing to finish.  I’m also developing some other stories for this blog that involve more research.  I still care about those of you who trust me with your time by reading my posts, and I want to get better at posting more consistently.  I mention this because I value transparency and because I don’t believe in the idea that a good worker is by definition as consistent as a well-oiled machine.

Pursuing excellence in challenging fields can sometimes involve months and even years of training and experimenting with little apparent progress.  Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes a compelling case for valuing that kind of unpredictable work in his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. It’s a good book to read if you care more about long-term achievement than about short-term benchmarks.

Speaking of a well-oiled machine, Matthew Crawford celebrates the unpredictable nature of mechanical work. Sometimes a problem can be solved in minutes.  Other times it takes hours or days.  It depends on the complexities of the task at hand.  The quality of his work is not measured by some abstract set of metrics; his mission statement doesn’t compel him to produce industry-leading results while maximizing stock-holder value.  He just has to fix the damn thing in a timely fashion.
photo from flickr.com/a-mon

photo from flickr.com/a-mon

Wrestling with physical things to get them to do what you want involves a bit of humility, Mr. Crawford explains.  It’s one of the most original points in the book.  When you have to deal with particulars that have their own attributes, you cannot just force your ego on them.  The broken crankshaft doesn’t care if you graduated from Harvard or that you once appeared on the cover of You Are Awesome! Monthly.  If you don’t take into account the physical laws that make it work, then the crankshaft will not keep your engine running, no matter how much indie-rock street cred the scene kids give you.
photo from flickr.com/a-mon

photo from flickr.com/a-mon

These scene kids might think you’re cool, but that’s not going to persuade your broken car to start.

Mr. Crawford started his career in a think tank, so he has first-hand experience with the knowledge economy.   He started the work with a sense of idealism, but he soon found himself sacrificing the quality of his research in order to meet weekly performance goals. To his dismay, he realized that he was no longer doing something useful to help his fellow man.  He was manipulated stats to keep his managers happy and was distorted facts to serve the mission statement of his think tank.  Doing this pumped dissonance into his soul, dissonance that kept building pressure until it became the catalyst that led him into automotive repair work.

By the time he opened up his own repair shop, Mr. Crawford had sanded away any desire to ever return to his old information-driven job.   That doesn’t mean he now disdains knowledge.  Quite the contrary.  His book references philosophers, prominent research, and current events.  Besides, the book itself is an engaging, enjoyable read, and you can’t write that kind of book if you don’t take some delight in organizing information.   It was the facade that his job induced, the pursuit of meaningless metrics and half-truths, that  drove Mr. Crawford out of the think tank.

photo from flickr.com/chrysti

photo from flickr.com/chrysti

Mr. Crawford’s ambivalence toward the information economy  makes sense in context of his background.  According to Mr. Crawford, the problem starts with our education system.  Most of what we learn in school prepares us to sort information, Mr. Crawford argues.  Think about it: A typical school test will measure how well someone can find the right answer and not how well someone can build something or apply a practical skill to a real-world situation.

The emphasis is on learning general skills that can someday be applied to specific situations, someday but not any time soon, because, Mr. Crawford explains, our society doesn’t want to limit a child’s possibilities.  After all, suggesting that it takes time, effort and focus to become a master at something might hurt someone’s self esteem.   Is it any surprise that the old, but highly-effective, practice of having a master train a young student as an apprentice has become almost non-existent in our society?

Let’s not forget about  the social stigma of vocational classes offered in school. When I was in school, there was this sense that vocational classes were for those weren’t good students and who weren’t going to college.  Maybe that very mentality explains why so many schools are cutting back on their vocational programs.

Based on my own educational experiences and those of friends and family, I conclude that knowing the stages of photosynthesis is an essential quality of a good citizen, but being able to fix things, either as a job or as a service to the community, doesn’t matter very much.  During my school days, I learned about photosynthesis in one mandatory class after another, but I never learned how to build a shelf.  I can assure you that I’ve never run into a real-world situation that made me think, “ah hah, that’s the effect of the Calvin-Benson Cycle at work!”  In contrast, there have been several times in my life where I wanted to build something, but I didn’t know how.

The  information-oriented people who our schools like to produce tend to be more voracious consumers, Mr. Crawford declares.  Such a person can clearly see that 15 megapixels is more than 12, and that the newer camera has more features, for example.  On top of that, there is an unstated assumption in our information-age that anything new is generally of more value than anything old.  (To test the wisdom of this assumption, talk to all the guys who dove head-first into the unsteady arms of Windows Vista.)  The correct and obvious answer to the consumer is to buy the newer camera.
photo from flickr.com/danstrange

photo from flickr.com/danstrange

On the other hand, the folks who get their hands dirty doing the work that needs to be done are more likely to use, and modify if necessary, the tools at hand.  The specs and the branding of a product aren’t as important as the product’s usefulness to these individuals, and since their self-image isn’t derived from the information that advertisers provide, they don’t feel as compelled to buy the latest and greatest stuff.  They’d rather put their time and money into producing more useful things.

Striking a more optimistic note, Mr. Crawford reminds us that the do-it-yourself sensibility is growing, even though this sensibility doesn’t always make economic sense.  For most people, buying the raw materials and then building a sofa costs more money and takes longer than just buying an affordable sofa from the furniture store.  And yet, a certain number of people still choose to make their own furniture.  These folks aren’t fools.  They just appreciate the inexplicable sense of pride that comes from crafting something useful with their hands.  It may not be good for the bank account, but it might be just what the soul needs, at least that’s what Mr. Crawford wants us to conclude.

When I was growing up, I got caught up in the whole information thing.  I would cram facts into my head not because they were useful but because they might help me get a better grade on a test.  Only after I tried to build meaningful relationships and seek significance beyond the classroom did I realize that there is more to life than just knowing the right answers.

Sometimes the doing is more important than the knowing, and you don’t have to be a mechanic to appreciate that. Does that mean working with your hands will save your soul?  Well not necessarily, but maybe it’ll keep you humble and out of trouble for a while, long enough for you to hear the things that God wants to whisper to you.   I can’t speak for your experience, so I’ll talk about mine.  If I can get myself to just show up ready to do my best, create and listen, then I have a better chance of prevailing against the self-destructive inclinations that encroach upon the day.

Am I extending the metaphor too far?  Perhaps, but consider this: Jesus was a carpenter, and Stalin was a politician.   Curious details, don’t you think?

photo from flickr.com/cobalt

photo from flickr.com/cobalt

Matthew Crawford had to open his repair shop and focus his labor on improving the lives of others before he discovered a heightened sense of community.  That’s a good enough reason for me to take his ideas seriously.  Now enough contemplation: Let’s go make something!

Six TED-Talk-powered Tips for Making the World Less Corporate

Photo by ramon_perez_terrassa on Flickr

Photo from ramon_perez_terrassa on Flickr


“Too many rules prevent accomplished jazz musicians from improvising, and as a result they lose their gifts, or worse, they stop playing altogether.”  That’s a quote from Barry Schwartz’s fantastic speech on our society’s loss of wisdom.   (It was a speech given at this year’s TED conference, and I highly recommend watching it.)

It’s sad isn’t it, when our jazz musicians, athletes, unique thinkers, visionary entrepreneurs, volunteers, and all the others who strive to bring more meaning into the world  experience something that causes them to forever stop doing what they do.   Too often the villain responsible is a corporate one, a thing that could have been avoided with a thinking mind and a working heart.

The death blow doesn’t always come from the heavy artillery.  Sometimes all it takes is a phone call.  Please allow me a personal story: it’s why I had to write this post.  With just one five-minute phone call, a producer that I’ve been in contact with for over seven months almost shattered my inclination to ever create again.   He did this not by denying the merit of my project, something that I’ve been working on for the past few years of my life, but by telling me that after 7 months he hadn’t gotten to read it yet because his time was very valuable.  


Old Poorhouse Woman with a Glass Bottle - Paula Modersohn-Becker

Old Poorhouse Woman with a Glass Bottle - Paula Modersohn-Becker


I sent him 11 pages to consider, and yes folks, that’s 11 pages and not 110.  Before I did that I saw his shows and read his book to better understand him and to determine whether my project could possibly be relevant to him.  I thought it could be, but I assured him that I would not call or email him again if he gave me a definitive no.   A “no” he would not give me, but a declaration about the value of his time, he freely shared.

I shut down as a person for almost a week because of that.  I got little done, and I wasn’t the easiest to be around.   Because of him, I thought seriously about just settling for a life of doing corporate work and spending money to buy more comforts and pleasures.  Thank God, I no longer feel that way.

I’m not writing this to lash out at him in public.  That’s not my style.  I prefer to settle my disputes with someone person to person, and as God is my witness, he will know what I think of his actions, and I will get a definitive yes or no from him, or I will die trying.

My point is that sometimes even seemingly small, thoughtless moments can perpetuate a more corporate world.  The producer in question is not altogether bad man.  He is in many ways, I’m sure, more decent than I am, but he almost convinced me to give up entirely on pursuing any kind of creative expression, the very stuff that gives my life the strongest sense of purpose, harmony, and hope.  Put differently it’s part of the least corporate elements in my life.  

I recognize the very real possibility that I have done or  could do to someone else what he almost did to me.  This list, inspired by Barry Schwartz’ lecture, is my way of fighting that possibility:


1. Take strong positions.

If you’re not interested in a project, why tie up someone’s time by being ambiguous?  By saying an honest no, you make it easier for someone to turn his attention to more rewarding possibilities.  Certainly, it can be uncomfortable to say no and face the disappointment or frustration of another person, and besides, staying undecided for as long as possible is convenient.  Unfortunately, with your ambiguities and your delays on a decision, you add your own home-made resistance to someone else”s dreams, and dreams are hard enough to bring to life without your half-hearted opposition.  

Barry Schwartz isn’t vague about what he accepts and what he doesn’t.  That’s one reason why he’s compelling.  Corporate speakers, though, are too concerned about saying the wrong things, so they hedge.  To prevent you from realizing this, they distract with mesmerizingly awful PowerPoint  animations.  No one enjoys hearing those people speak, but everyone claps out of habit.  

Speaking of PowerPoint presentations, you’ll notice that the slides Mr. Schwartz uses have an elegant,  minimalistic design.  The ideas are strong enough on their own so that cutesy, animated gifs aren’t needed to hold the audience’s interest.   (To read more about the thinking behind the slides for the presentation, check out this helpful lessons-from-TED post from slide:ology.)  If your presentation isn’t compelling enough, maybe you should spend more time tweaking your ideas and not your clip art.  


2. Avoid meaningless clutter.

I am amazed by how many companies choose to use hold recordings that go something like this, “Thanks for calling.  Your call is very important to us.  It will be answered in the order in which it was received.”  This is something any company can say.  Is your company just like any other company or does it have something special to share with the world?  Your advertising says that you are special, so why let your phone messages or your internal training videos, or your memos argue otherwise?

As if the above phone message isn’t bland enough, too many companies opt to have the message repeat every 45 seconds or so.  Right when I am getting comfortable enough to start daydreaming about new possibilities, I get interrupted with generic words from a generic voice.  That’s sort of like throwing balls of Styrofoam at patrons right when they’re bringing a spoon of hot, savory soup to their mouth.  That kind of thing robs me of my appreciation for the moment, a moment that could have begotten good and useful things.  

Why waste words to apologize for the inconvenience when it really isn’t an inconvenience?   Asking me to use a different grocery-store isle because the one in front of me is closed is not an inconvenience.  It is a reasonable situation that common sense illuminates.  Using plastic phrases on me rarely makes me feel better, and clunky legalistic prose doesn’t encourage me to spend more money.  When I discover it in stuff I’ve already purchased, I  have fewer reasons to smile about the product in question.  

As Mr. Schwartz suggests, there’s no reason for teachers to read the lesson from a script.  That insults the competent teachers and bores the kids.  If the teachers aren’t able to come up with their own coherent lesson plans that address relevant topics, then they should be doing different work.  Making things easy for incompetent people to be mediocre has the unfortunate consequence of making the world more corporate at an exponential rate.  


3.  Incubate possibilities.

Both babies and new ventures cannot survive on their own without support from others.  The call that you don’t return could be the one that seduces someone to give up on something that would have changed the world.    One of my goals is to return a call or email that asks for a response within 2 days.  I’m pretty good at doing that most of the time.  If I can do it, why can’t you?    Why risk the chance of demoralizing someone when returning a personable call usually takes just five minutes or less?

Barry Schartz warns us that if people have to swim against the current for too long, they’ll give up.  Some ideas don’t have enough merit to justify their survival, but others do.  It’s tragic when the good ones get strangled by the organizational resistance that attack with bureaucracy and mindless adherence to policy.  


4. Avoid unnecessary rules.  

To quote Mr. Schwartz again, “Moral skill is chipped away by an over-reliance on rules that deprives us of the opportunity to improvise and learn from our improvisations, and moral will is undermined by an incessant appeal to incentives that destroy our desire to do the right thing.”  The more rules you make the more you encourage the rise of corparate drones who merely follow policy and don’t think or interact with the particulars at hand.  Those kinds of workers can be crafted into docile automatons, but they won’t be very good at generating innovation and adapting to change.


5. Don’t be cynical.

Everyone has their shortcomings, but we sell people short when we search for base motives behind every deed.  Treating others with weary suspicion even when they do good makes it harder for that person to continue doing good.  I’m as guilty of this as anyone, maybe even guiltier than most; I face an on-going battle against encroaching cynicism, and I don’t always win.  

When you’ve been hurt, it is a challenge not to project those past experiences of cruelty and selfishness onto other people in the present.  But, if you keep treating an organization or a  contact with enough cynicism, eventually they’ll ignore you or live up to your expectations.  Neither party benefits from that, so that’s reason enough to keep a vigilant guard against corrosive cynicism.  

Follow Mr. Schwartz’s advice: “celebrate moral exemplars.”  Dare to praise others not just for their technical capacities but for the nobility of their actions.  You may risk looking unsophisticated, naive, and unhip, but do it anyway.  Virtue matters enough to justify the risk.


6.  Be honest. 

Well-intentioned buisness people are, on ocassion, hesitant to speak the truth out of fear for the market’s reaction or their jobs.  On a personal level, people are hesitant to tell the truth out a fear of rejection or of the consequences that come with the truth.  These are not petty matters to be easily dismissed.  

Sometimes being honest will cost you in the short term, but it comes with long-term freedom, freedom to be yourself and to make decisions based on what can help you or your organization grow.  In the end, honesty always prevails, but you won’t believe that unless you accept a metaphysical reality greater than the perceivable material, and often very corporate, world around you.  

If your worldview does not allow for a God or a universe that ultimately rewards character over profitability, then there is a very real danger that you will end up as another corporate denizen who will do anything to stay on top,  perhaps you’ll even apologize for the inconvenience as you uppercut me with your meaningless clutter.  Anything to stay ahead, right?

Photo from flickr.com/rickz

Photo from flickr.com/rickz

Here’s me being honest: I had decided against writing this post, until I came across Barry Schwartz’s speach.  The beauty of his ideas helped snap me out of my own private hell, long enough to write this.   Whether this post will be helpful to anyone, I don’t know, but writing it was helpful to me.  Before watching Mr. Schwartz’s speach, my plan for the weekend was to spend much of it drinking one beer after another at a local bar.  By being less corporate, Mr. Schwartz helped me to do the same.  

You can do likewise, if you’re so inclined.  Somewhere in the world a jazz musician will thank you.


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