12.05.2009

Working for a living

"Scultore Supremo": Hope Cemetery in Barre is a collective monument to craftsmanship and artistry expressed in granite.

The scene on a blustery November afternoon, I was briefly wandering around before heading to the 5th Annual Dylan Wannabe Contest in Montpelier, but a strong, cold wind made it difficult to walk around for long.

I'm reading "Shop Class as Soulcraft", written by a guy with an academic background in philosophy who works as a motorcycle mechanic. The book aspires to be a discussion of work -- particularly manual craftsmanship -- and its meaning in modern life. The author contrasts the various challenges facing a mechanic with the purportedly more intellectual -- and abstract to the point of meaningless absurdity -- challenges faced by knowledge workers in the service economy.

I found the book hard to get into. Initially I attributed this to the flightiness of my brain, re-wired by too much time online and exposure to the pointless navel-gazing of social networking sites. I did, however, discover that many reviewers on Amazon found reading the book to be a rather ambiguous experience, there are some sound ideas but parts are dense and repetitive. What could have been a short, pointed essay has been conflated into book length form and the added length doesn't really add too much value.

When the author writes about what he is most passionate about -- the challenges and rewards of intricate, intellectually challenging yet still tactile work on old motorcycles -- the book is quite engrossing. And the author did not just happily become a mechanic -- he wandered down some career pathways more suitable for his academic background, and found the roles to be quite unfulfilling.

I don't know. On one hand I am quite inept with tools: When my bicycles need service, typically I throw the machine in my car and take it to a shop. But in my own experience I know that the modern workplace can be a soul-deadening, absurdist environment where time slides by, work lacks meaning, and boredom and routine are the primary themes. This is hardly an original observation... see Office Space or the series The Office, etc.

For example, in my recent unhappy and abortive work experience, one thing my supervisor did one Friday afternoon when I was quite new, was to block out my calendar for me -- assigning all tasks for the coming week into precise columns, Monday through Friday, and every minute and every hour of every day was planned and precisely accounted for.

The problem was that these were tasks that required inputs from others, editing and revisions -- and so by Monday afternoon the nice, neat calendar for the week was already a shambles. I found the whole experience be somewhat akin to the movie Brazil, I felt like a cog caught in a machine, except the output was random and meaningless.

All these subjects are things to consider as I plot a way forward from the present morass. While I don't foresee becoming a mechanic in my next career, I could see trying to make a go of it myself and not relying on others so much -- flying solo. One consequence of the current economic collapse, is that the opportunity cost for starting something is quite low -- perhaps it's time to take a chance, and begin anew.

No comments: