The soft bigotry of high expectations

OC Latte

If you haven’t read the New York Times Magazine excerpt of Shop Class as Soulcraft, I’d urge you to do so. The original essay from The New Atlantis is one of my favorites and I’m thrilled to see that author Matthew Crawford has expanded it into a book. Crawford left an office job, academia, and public policy to open a motorcycle repair shop, finding the most satisfaction in the last endeavor. Few seem to understand his decision:

The trades suffer from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience. I have a small business as a motorcycle mechanic in Richmond, Va., which I started in 2002. I work on Japanese and European motorcycles, mostly older bikes with some “vintage” cachet that makes people willing to spend money on them. I have found the satisfactions of the work to be very much bound up with the intellectual challenges it presents. And yet my decision to go into this line of work is a choice that seems to perplex many people.

This is because they miss the intellectual challenges of the job:

And it frequently requires complex thinking. In fixing motorcycles you come up with several imagined trains of cause and effect for manifest symptoms, and you judge their likelihood before tearing anything down. This imagining relies on a mental library that you develop. An internal combustion engine can work in any number of ways, and different manufacturers have tried different approaches. Each has its own proclivities for failure. You also develop a library of sounds and smells and feels. For example, the backfire of a too-lean fuel mixture is subtly different from an ignition backfire.

My own experience mirrors Crawford’s, right up to the failed experiment in working for think tanks (though unlike him, I have great respect for the work done by my previous employers — I simply didn’t want to remain a daily part of the institution). When I would tell people in DC that I was a barista, their response was almost always something along the lines of, “Oh, that’s nice, but what do you really want to do?” The idea that making coffee was what I really wanted to do was incomprehensible to them.

Yet the job had more intellectual challenge to it than outsiders realize. Coaxing a good shot of espresso out of whole coffee beans is a puzzle requiring knowledge of the product and the science of brewing, and also a sensory understanding and mastery of the equipment that only develops with experience. A change in grind, in dosage, in water temperature, or any of a dozen other factors could be the difference between a mediocre shot and a true expression of the coffee. Maintaining quality required constant thought and attention.

There is also the greater feeling of reality that comes with doing manual work. Crawford describes his dawning disillusionment with his first cubicle job:

Those who work on the lower rungs of the information-age office hierarchy face their own kinds of unreality, as I learned some time ago. After earning a master’s degree in the early 1990s, I had a hard time finding work but eventually landed a job in the Bay Area writing brief summaries of academic journal articles, which were then sold on CD-ROMs to subscribing libraries. When I got the phone call offering me the job, I was excited. I felt I had grabbed hold of the passing world — miraculously, through the mere filament of a classified ad — and reeled myself into its current. My new bosses immediately took up residence in my imagination, where I often surprised them with my hidden depths. As I was shown to my cubicle, I felt a real sense of being honored. It seemed more than spacious enough. It was my desk, where I would think my thoughts — my unique contribution to a common enterprise, in a real company with hundreds of employees. The regularity of the cubicles made me feel I had found a place in the order of things. I was to be a knowledge worker.

But the feel of the job changed on my first day. The company had gotten its start by providing libraries with a subject index of popular magazines like Sports Illustrated. Through a series of mergers and acquisitions, it now found itself offering not just indexes but also abstracts (that is, summaries), and of a very different kind of material: scholarly works in the physical and biological sciences, humanities, social sciences and law. Some of this stuff was simply incomprehensible to anyone but an expert in the particular field covered by the journal. I was reading articles in Classical Philology where practically every other word was in Greek. Some of the scientific journals were no less mysterious. Yet the categorical difference between, say, Sports Illustrated and Nature Genetics seemed not to have impressed itself on the company’s decision makers. In some of the titles I was assigned, articles began with an abstract written by the author. But even in such cases I was to write my own. The reason offered was that unless I did so, there would be no “value added” by our product. It was hard to believe I was going to add anything other than error and confusion to such material. But then, I hadn’t yet been trained.

There’s no denying that having a manual job like working in a coffee shop requires doing many tasks that aren’t at all intellectually stimulating: mopping floors, cleaning grinders, manning the cash register, etc. But there’s also no denying that this stuff has to get done and serves a clear purpose. This knowledge made these tasks much more satisfying than many pointless office routines I have performed, even if the latter required more intellectual effort.

Crawford writes, “A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world.” I would go a bit further and add that a good job offers opportunities for beauty. Though no Christian myself, I think there’s much truth in the fly-fishing theology of A River Runs Through It:

As a Scot and a Presbyterian, my father believed that man by nature was a mess and had fallen from an original state of grace. Somehow, I early developed the notion that he had done this by falling from a tree. As for my father, I never knew whether he believed God was a mathematician but he certainly believed God could count and that only by picking up God’s rhythms were we able to regain power and beauty. Unlike many Presbyterians, he often used the word “beautiful.” […]

My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things — trout as well as eternal salvation — come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.

Working an espresso machine offers many moments of beauty. My time condensing 30 page policy studies into 5 paragraph press releases was often challenging, but it was never beautiful. (There are occasionally beautiful moments at Cato, such as the awarding of the 2008 Friedman Prize to Venezuelan student activist Yon Goicoechea, but these never involved my work in media relations.)

I can’t imagine ever going back to office life and its rush hour commutes, enterprise software, and pointless dress codes. And yet I woudn’t be happy focusing entirely on craft, either. I still want to engage in public intellectual life and am painfully aware of how my hours behind the bar detract from my time to write and research. I feel very lucky to be living in a time in which the internet has made it so unnecessary to choose between the two paths, however difficult it can be to strike the right balance. Crawford does a great service dispelling the notion that mastery of a trade is something to be looked down upon or seen as a course suitable only for those unequipped for more esteemed professions.