Magazine

Is working with your hands better than just with your head?

  • 4 January 2011
  • From the section Magazine
  • comments
Person mending a car

If the new year and inevitable return to work leaves you yearning for change, is working with your hands the answer?

The time for reflection is nigh - a new year, a new you. But is that workstation you've slotted back into looking depressingly familiar?

As millions of workers drag themselves back into the office to contemplate another 12 months of drudgery, many will be wondering if they are in the right job.

Writer and mechanic Matthew Crawford thinks a lot of us would be better off trading in our mouse for a screwdriver. His recent book, The Case for Working With Your Hands, has been a huge hit in his native United States, praised by critics and politicians alike.

Mr Crawford, who used to run a Washington think tank but now mends motorbikes, says it is no wonder people are miserable at work. Jobs have become so specialised and process driven that it is hard to see what difference you are making. And in those rare cases where one's impact is obvious, the result may seem pointless.

Jealousy

"A lot of us are plagued with a sense of uselessness," he says. "I've created a brand - what good is that? So I've persuaded people to buy something they didn't need."

When running a think tank, he says he honestly could not see the rationale for being paid at all, and wondered what tangible goods or services he was providing to anyone.

Then he opened a motorbike repair shop and was surprised to find he was not just happier, but more intellectually stimulated. The life of a tradesman is a varied existence, mixing practicality with logic and problem solving, he says.

"Imagine you're an electrician, you're installing a conduit pipe and have to bend around the corners to make everything line up. It's the kind of work that requires improvisation and adaptation. It can never be reduced to following set procedures."

Not only that, the earning potential for a tradesman is greater than in many office jobs. For instance, a skilled mechanic is likely to earn more than a sociology graduate working in publishing, he argues.

Not everything about manual work is rosy. He warns that furniture making is not a good career move - Ikea can undercut you by employing workers in China for a fraction of the price. But a range of trades that need to be done on site cannot be outsourced to low wage economies.

After new year introspection, January and February are traditionally one of the busiest periods for moving jobs. Mr Crawford believes doing a trade can make you happier.

'Middle-class paradox'

"It offers small moments of confirmation, like when the bike you're mending starts up and runs. Small satisfactions like that can be elusive at a huge organisation with vast layers of management, where the criteria by which you're measured are ambiguous."

The Times columnist Giles Coren recently tried working with his hands for the BBC Two show Giles and Sue Live the Good Life. Despite his on-screen schtick of appearing to hate everything the duo are asked to do, he fell in love with it.

"I found chasing the chickens and weeding the allotment immensely satisfying," he says. "The pain... was making the television show."

He agrees with Mr Crawford that modern life has been blighted by a series of alienating processes, often carried out on mobile phone, laptop and e-mail. In this way, his chosen career - journalism - has been stripped of its sense of adventure and human contact.

"Even 15 years ago when I started as a reporter, you left the office to do a story. You went to investigate, visited people and used the cuttings library. Now I just sit... and Google. It's terrible, I wish I was a fireman."

Despite his columnist's salary, he is jealous of those whose jobs have a clear purpose like the gardener and cleaner.

"My gardener Brian comes in to do the garden every two weeks. He takes his shirt off in the summer and smokes a rollie. I can see him through the window, but I'm sitting indoors, staring at the screen to pay for this guy - it's the classic middle-class paradox."

Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of advertising firm Ogilvy UK, agrees that working with your hands does offer greater satisfaction in the short term. But manual workers lack something many of us crave - influence.

Jobs like advertising where you "work with your head" may seem futile, but the ideas they come up with really do change the world, he says.

"Five years ago someone worked out that you could have one size lid for the three different sizes of coffee cup that cafes have. Ok, it's emphatically not the cure for cancer, but it's through millions of little ideas like this that we get richer as a society."

Perception of value

Television dramas like Mad Men depict the office to be a place of invigorating competition, sexual tension and creativity. However stylised the portrayal, Mr Sutherland says there is a definite buzz to working around like-minded people - one that tradesmen miss out on.

"People partly enjoy work because it's social, but working with your hands can be lonely."

And he believes that experienced trades people are often economically undervalued due to the perverse way that consumers ascribe worth. He cites the behavioural economist Dan Ariely's story about a locksmith.

As a young apprentice, the tradesman used to take half an hour to mend a lock, at which point he'd be thanked wholeheartedly and given a tip.

When he became more experienced, the locksmith could fix a similar problem in a minute. He charged the same rate and completed the job much faster. But instead of being pleased at his speed, customers complained about his rates and refused to tip him.

"It's about our perception of value." And in this respect the skilled tradesman will often struggle, he says.

In the course of researching his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain de Botton concludes that we all want to make a difference in our job, however banal that change may be.

"At the end of the working day we want to feel we've left the planet slightly healthier, tidier, saner than it was at the beginning," he says. "I'm not necessarily talking of huge changes - the difference might merely involve sanding a stair banister, removing the squeak on a door or reuniting someone with their lost luggage."

And yet, it is a mistake to romanticise working with your hands, he warns.

"At heart, what you're talking about is the charm of craft work. And it's my sense this can happen in places far removed from the workshop. If you're writing computer code you are in a sense displaying many of the same skills as a craftsperson, even if the finished product can't be held or touched."

But following the financial crisis, Mr de Botton says attitudes to all types of work may be changing. He detects a move away from the middle-class idea that work lies "at the heart of our self-fulfillment", to the working-class view of employment as a means of feeding yourself and your family.

"More and more one hears the refrain, 'it's not perfect, but at least it's a job…'"

Around the BBC