Impressive Blue-Collar Brilliance

It is good for the mind to work with the hands.

I like to pick up a piece of wood and run my hand along its edge. There is an art to this. A heavy hand will reward you with a deep splinter that you will rue for the rest of the day until you can dig it out with a sharp knife after a hot soak. It takes a light touch, just enough to feel the texture of those miraculous parallel fibres of organic growth with which we build almost everything. And what is this wood made of? In short: sunlight, water, dirt, and time. I think that’s pretty miraculous.

I like to lay a corner of the piece on the ground and hold the near end close to my one open eye, seeing if the board is warped one way or the other. I also like to see my ten year-old son doing the same. “Dad, this one is good.” “Oh this one is curved to the side.” I like to picture how we’ll use the piece for our project. I know we’ll need some two-by-fours cut to about 80 inches for the porch swing we are building, so the ugly knot at the end of this 8-foot piece will not matter because we have 16 inches to spare and I’ll make sure we cut off that end instead of the other. And even though this side is rough, we’ll put that face against another board so that only the nice side shows.

This is the kind of conversation you have with yourself, or with your ten year-old son if you are abundantly blessed like me, in the lumber aisle of the hardware store. This capacity to visualize, to turn the piece over in your mind and know the exact place and precise orientation it will eventually occupy, is astounding to me. I often bump up against the limits of my ability to do this, when the design is still unclear to me, or the multiprocessor of my biological graphics card is maxed out and overheating. (When that happens I buy a couple extra pieces and hope I can figure it out later.) And then I think about master craftsmen (and women) whose gifting far exceeds my own; builders of cathedrals and ornate spiral staircases and clock mechanisms and violins, and I am filled with awe. Sub-creators, imaging and faintly reflecting the inimitable genius of the Creator.

Welding. Not as easy as it looks.

Educated elites are often dismissive of working-class folks, but I have found that they can be just as intelligent, albeit in different ways. The knowledge economy has encouraged society to value (and remunerate) work that is based on abstract knowledge at the expense of work centered around the physical. Market forces are what they are, but we are mistaken if we think that those in the service industry or the trades lack intelligence by virtue of their position. Such an attitude is based on ignorance, misunderstanding, and pride.

I have spent a lot of time in both kinds of worlds: university classrooms, engineering companies, and management meetings on the one hand, and mechanics shops and woodworking shops and the warehouse floor on the other. I feel at home discussing, on the one hand, literature, epic poetry, theology, and philosophy, and on the other hand, turbochargers, classic rock, robotics, and belt conveyors. What can I say? I’m a weird guy with too many interests (just ask my wife). But I think this has given me a certain vantage point from which to observe these worlds which often do not meet. In this piece, I am simply reflecting on the goodness of practical skills.

I was recently pointed to an article from 2009 on the (perhaps) surprising brilliance required to do many blue-collar jobs well. (Hat-tip to Alan Jacobs and his eclectic newsletter for the recommendation). It is a good read and I commend it to you. It put into words something which has floated around in my thinking for a number of years. The author’s descriptions of skilled blue-collar workers excelling in demanding environments, from busy restaurant to factory floor, confirm my own experience as well. Some of the brightest minds I have encountered work in these kinds of places.

There is something fascinating about watching a skilled worker in his or her element. Maybe it is the deceitfully simple-looking movements that, try as we might to imitate, will nevertheless take decades to master. Maybe it is also the sense that the workings of a keen mind are being made visible in a way that doesn’t apply to watching a brilliant economist or lawyer. I am also drawn to the physicality of the labor and the tangible nature of the result. I think this explains the popularity of all those “How It’s Made” shows, or the 56 million (to date) people willing to spend 14 minutes watching “Grandpa Amu” building a bridge with basic hand tools and zero fasteners or glue:

Did you watch the whole thing? It’s kind of mesmerizing. For a time one of my favorite YouTube channels was Essential Craftsman (with over a million subscribers), where Scott Wadsworth holds forth on a variety of tools, trades, and skills that he has mastered over his decades of experience. Watching his videos, it doesn’t take long to recognize not only his physical skill and extensive technical knowledge but also his uncommon ability to communicate clearly. Obviously I’m not the only one who finds these kinds of displays compelling.

As technology encroaches further into every facet of human experience – creating a sense of alienation from the natural and material world of things – many of us find ourselves craving something mechanical, something made of wood, something real and tangible. The kind of intelligence it takes to excel in an environment where your mistakes will find you out – and fast – is something to behold. In fact, there is a beauty to it. Watch an experienced and skilled waitress keep a half dozen or more tables of busy lunchers fed and watered and happy. Or a machine operator who knows just how to time each movement of his body to match the movement of the machine, preserving energy and producing a consistently excellent result. It may look easy, but then watch a rookie and you’ll quickly see it’s anything but.

I don’t know what he’s making, but I like it.

The list of examples goes on and on, including all skilled trades: plumbers, electricians, carpenters, millwrights, welders, bricklayers, masons, painters, roofers, and more. In each of these the masters have learned to adapt their approach to the reality of the created world and the laws of physics. It is a kind of earthy wisdom; to learn the properties of your material, the task, the tools, the dynamics of angles and temperatures and whatever other parameters need to be considered.

So the next time you see someone with some down-to-earth practical skills, don’t forget to be at least a little bit impressed, and maybe let them know. After all, being unimpressed is not a virtue, even if it seems to be awfully popular.

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