Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art. – Andy Warhol
Many years ago I spent a few months with a technician, learning how to repair electronic equipment. This is not something people think about much now, I suppose – but I remember being patiently taken through the steps of disassembling and diagnosing VCRs and cassette players and a washing machine. I learned that the first machines are built with steel and redundancy and durability and then all the effort goes into making everything simpler and lighter and made from plastic because it has to be cheaper. And resources like Samuel M. Goldwasser’s repair notes were invaluable.
But I haven’t used them in twenty years now. Things work, and if they don’t you throw them away and get something new. When I got my first car I joined a mechanics course at the local college and learned how to fix it. When the course was done, I used those skills for a while on the old runabouts that I used. And then I got my first newish car and haven’t had to do anything for more than a decade.
Many of us don’t need to do manual work, not stuff like fixing and repairing anyway. There’s always stuff to do around the house but if you’re not a perfectionist then you’re best off leaving proper work to the professionals. I’m talking about just doing something practical, being able to make or mend or do something – use your hands for something other than interacting with a computer.
Now, of course, interacting with a computer is also valuable – it’s a skill you need to participate in the world as it is today. Running away from it all isn’t the answer. But doing something with your hands could help – as Matthew Crawford argues in his book The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good. Crawford walked away from a desk job and unfulfilling, pointless work to start a motorcycle repair shop – almost recreating the life story Robert Pirsig outlines in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance – where he suggests that a young person who does not enjoy formal education should not carry on but should do something practical, like motorcycle repair.
It’s a romantic idea – walking away from those soulless office roles into the “real” world of machinery and men – it’s usually men… but I have another image too. I used to take those old cars to a mechanic and I went into his shop one day as he was wrestling with a fastener. It was dark, he was in his overalls, grimy and sweaty and clearly not enjoying his battle with the vehicle. As I walked in, it all got too much for him, and he turned and flung his spanner at the wall. This was not a person “in touch” with his manual self – it was a tired, fatigued person doing manual work and wondering why he was doing something so tiring and pointless. It didn’t surprise me when he closed his shop a few months later and went to work for someone else.
I’ve even been offered mechanics jobs – talked about it once when I took my bike in for a repair and another time when I asked for a repair kit for my car. Apparently people didn’t repair things these days, they just fitted new parts and when I talked to the owner about what I was trying to do he said to come back if I wanted a job. But I like the comfort of a desk, the clean air and lack of manual effort involved in machining words and images. I don’t enjoy manual work – but I’m happy to spend hours tinkering and fixing and tweaking my own stuff, but not for a job and not if it matters. For example, an outside door was swinging in the wind so violently that it tore off its hinges, breaking the door frame in the process. So, we put the door back in the opening and then used the other door for several years. We thought it would be a big, expensive job to get the door frame fixed.
Recently I wanted to get access to the door again. So I watched videos on YouTube on how to fix frames and eventually just went out and chiselled out the broken bits of frame and cut new pieces to fit and nailed them in and rehung the door. And it worked. It’s not pretty, but it’s a repair and it will work for as long as needed until we need to do a proper job on the thing.
Life isn’t really that complicated when you think about it. What matters is not whether you do manual work or mental work but whether you do work that you like to do. It’s very hard to tell what makes other people tick – but there are clues lurking around. In the science fiction programme “Farscape” a character says, “I am nothing if not a product of my upbringing” and that’s a big part of it and there is something else, if you are lucky, that you discover you are drawn to and if you are very lucky you can do that as a vocation.
How many of us can say that we are doing exactly what we wanted to do? Very few I reckon.
But, if you’re spending most of your time doing something because it’s a job, it’s something that brings in money and helps you provide for your family – there’s honour and respect in that. But if you get the chance to save a little time to do something that you want to do then that’s what’s in it for you.
That’s what’s going to fill the space in you that needs to make something, do something, create something, leave something behind.