Shop Class as Soulcraft

The New York Times Magazine ran an excerpt from Matthew B. Crawford's new book, Shop Class as Soul Craft. Crawford has a Ph.D. in political philosophy. He owns and operates a motorcycle repair shop.

His book is about the the importance of using your hands to make and repair things. He compares the kind of life many people in developed countries lead -- inside cubicles, working on things that are several levels removed from the physical world -- to a life of skilled labor that requires ingenuity and experience, and provides the kinds of challenges that human beings were made to relish.

I'm writing a book about the rewards of DIY, and Crawford's book really resonated with me.

Shopclass-As-Soulcraft-2 A gifted young person who chooses to become a mechanic rather than to accumulate academic credentials is viewed as eccentric, if not self-destructive. There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children. It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions. Further, there is wide use of drugs to medicate boys, especially, against their natural tendency toward action, the better to "keep things on track." I taught briefly in a public high school and would have loved to have set up a Ritalin fogger in my classroom. It is a rare person, male or female, who is naturally inclined to sit still for 17 years in school, and then indefinitely at work.

Shop Class as Soul Craft


  1. I went through all the institutional gates, to become a reasonably successful software engineer.

    My little brother became a mechanic.

    And I am *so damn proud* of him, it hurts :D

  2. I work in a cubicle all week doing nothing and creating no real value for anyone.

    On the weekends I’m getting my hands dirty fixing up my ’69 Ford Torino.

    Only the latter really fills me with any satisfaction. The tangible evidence of progress is right there in front of you at the end of the day, and any problems you solve are immediately apparent.

    Most people never even lift the hood on their cars anymore.

  3. That’s probably why I love playing with legos so much! It’s not as dirty or useful as working on a car or anything, but I enjoy the feeling of accomplishment, and the physical feeling of putting things together.

  4. It is interesting how jobs where one actually works with one’s hands are so looked down upon, even when they’re (condescendingly) praised. “Oh, yeah, I envy you, man. Getting your hands dirty, seeing the physical fruits of your labor. Must be really satisfying. Too bad I’m too smart to do that kind of thing for a living.” Vocational schools are seen as nice places for kids who aren’t smart enough to go anywhere else. When smart kids grow up to do anything physical for a living, people talk about it in the same kind of hushed tones they talk about teen pregnancy. It’s weird and sad.

    (For reference, my father had fancy degrees from fancy schools but ended up doing fine carpentry. I also have fancy degrees from fancy schools but spent my first year after leaving said schools working in a shipyard. So yeah, this really resonates.)

  5. When I went to Drexel Hill middle school we had wood, metal, print and electric shop. The last also includes a ham radio club. we also had sewing and cooking. I don’t remember anything good about the academic classes then but those shop and home-ec classes are still with me, I feel sorry for all the kids that don’t have classes like that today.

  6. I saw an article about this a little while ago, was interested. I’m actually moving in the opposite direction; I currently work as a carpenter & I’m going back to school to (hopefully) switch into a research-oriented career. I haven’t read the book, but I just want to respond to the little bit I’ve heard & read about this idea.

    I think its a bad idea to judge careers & jobs by output: are you making a motorcycle or writing lines of code? We should be seeking meaning within ourselves – are we following a passion, rather than from the outputs of our jobs.

    I’m still pretty passionate about good carpentry, but I’m not finding as much meaning in it as I used to, since I feel like I’m constantly making other people’s things – so I’m trying a different tack, but one that has less tangible results.
    So I think the important thing is to seek meaning – both in terms of searching for a career in the first place, and in terms of getting out of a job/career that doesn’t hold any meaning. And also the idea that your idea of meaning can & probably will change – walking the academic path may once have been meaningful to you, but not anymore.

    But I’m a little worried that we’re shifting into a new way of assigning meaning – i.e. your work is only meaningful if it produces a tangible result, or you work with your hands. Meaning comes from within, not from an external source of approval, no matter how well intentioned.

  7. I think the main problem with education in the US is that it assumes everyone to be on the same trajectory and tests everyone with that assumption as its only overarching value. The only option for a kid who is a genius with his hands to actually get an education in mechanical work is to drop out so he can do what he (or she) is good at full time. It’s ridiculous. Our country should equally value these equal trajectories. I’m sure there would be far fewer drop-outs, dead-enders, and all the inherent problems that come with those designations, if we provided mechanical education at the junior and high school level instead of discounting those kids as stupid. I don’t think the school system can be fixed until that happens.

  8. I like the guy’s sentiment. And it’s great that he figured out what he loves to do with his time. It’s only a shame that gifted boy paid to sit himself through several years of Ph.D. classes in a completely unrelated subject.

    If you’re happy doing what you do, it isn’t like sitting behind a desk indefinitely at all. Are there really no mechanics in the world, unhappy in their profession and aspiring to be something else? There are amazing jobs and shit jobs for every academic specialty.

    The message isn’t ‘build a motorcycle shop and you will be satisfied’. It’s do what makes you happy, even that means engaging with other policy wonks behind a desk. And try not to be a Dr. of oh-i’m-not-doing-that-anymore.

  9. I’m with @DECITRIG. Romanticizing any profession or vocation usually makes it unrecognizable to those who practice it.

    Moreover, no doubt many do find fulfillment through what they can turn over in their hands, and good for them. But I’m sure that many others find equal fulfillment (in both kind and degree) in their cubicle or home office. There are too many different kinds of work or, um, soulcrafting (whatever that actually means) to divide the world into makers and non-makers.

    Myself, I’m partial to Thoreau’s understanding of writing as itself work done with the hands, of a piece with building a house and tending crops. Make of that what you will.

  10. I also agree with #7 (decitrig).

    Having said that, I did abandon a 19-year career as a software engineer and became a farrier (a horseshoer) about 6 years ago (I started working early, at 15) and I’ve been enjoying seeing the actual results of my work and the difference it makes to the animals and the people that own them. I never got that while writing software even though I did like doing it.

  11. I’ve spent a lot of years in both worlds- in the office designed gizmos, and in the shop, building the tooling and machinery for mass production. I’m quite passionate about both.
    Look at that beautiful old Airhead! Really makes me miss ol’ Shakey Jake. I’ll attach a picture I did so I could experiment with the paint job I wanted to put on him.
    I wish I had the resources at hand for some serious tinkering- this SteamPunk stuff has gotten under my skin.

  12. @4, @9

    Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values

    Crawford gives his nod, with cover and title, to Pirsigs work. I first read Pirsig for a Western Civ. class in college on my way toward a ‘prestigious degree’

    It has had significant influence over my thought process and I eventually moved from management consulting to hands on work – and will not turn back.

  13. Another interesting perspective on this topic is an old sociology text called Growing Up Absurd, by Paul Goodman. He posits that childrens inability to connect their parents work with the observable world has a deleterious effect on their social development.

  14. I love working on my car and house, but i’m sure I wouldn’t so much if I had to do those things full-time for somebody else.

    Imo, pushing bits is good work if and when you get to the level that the bosses think of your work as involving a little voodoo. Otherwise, once they think they know how to do your job, it’s an invitation to downgrade into a commodity position.

    It’s likely that physical trades are now more attractive due to a flattened hierarchy–that is, less levels of managers and PHBs to suck up the oxygen.

  15. @Futbol, most of us PhD types get others to pay for our thinking. Just sayin’.

    That said, would I’d spent the last four years of my life building something other than a house of words, words, words…. I read about this in the Times and really vibe with what he’s saying.

    One problem, though: I may vibe with what he’s saying, but I’m an absolute spazztard with my hands. What’s a guy to do?

  16. I get far more pleasure from the two or three letterpress jobs I do a year than the 500 digitally-composed, litho-printed projects that are my bread & butter.

  17. Crawford says, “I taught briefly in a public high school and would have loved to have set up a Ritalin fogger in my classroom.”

    Think that is the controlling idea of his “soul” craft.

  18. @tdawwg

    One problem, though: I may vibe with what he’s saying, but I’m an absolute spazztard with my hands. What’s a guy to do?

    LEGO. Seriously. Or DUPLO if you’re really that uncoordinated…

  19. Many of my friends in law school pursued various crafty/makey hobbies on the side as a way to keep themselves sane when their “output” consisted entirely of words and thoughts (and arguey words at that). I myself made enough hand embroidery to supply a small nation.

    I work as a lawyer and a professor (both part-time) now, and while I do love both of those jobs, I also find a real release in doing something with my hands. All the work I do is creative and has meaning for me, but doing something handy helps re-energize me to do something head-y.

    In fact, teaching (in particular) has a heck of a lot MORE meaning than my hand embroidery hobby, but having something to do with my hands helps keep me connected to other parts of myself that don’t get such a workout in teaching or lawyering. And that may be the important part, keeping ourselves connected to the many different parts of ourselves, however we do that.

    I really did enjoy that article, though.

  20. @tdawwg.
    It’s called a CNC mill; my favorite new toy… erm… tool.

    I guess I’m lspoiled though because the I have access to all sorts of fun stuff like that because I’m still in college. I like working on bridging the two extremes, nothing is more satisfying the watching something you spent days rendering slowly emerging from a solid hunk of acrylic (or whatever material you desire).

    I still enjoy a hard days work though, that’s why I do residential construction in the summers with my father

  21. I worked for 9 years as an engineer for the Navy. It wasn’t too exciting, but I fulfilled my creative impulses by building wooden sea kayaks as a hobby. This worked well for me, but then the base I worked at got closed so I decided to take the severance and go full-time with the kayak building: .

    As I tell people, it beats “working”, even though the income is not as consistent. I control the whole process, from product inception, through design and construction, and then importantly, product testing. It is very gratifying to get out on the water in a vessel you have made yourself, but I think what I enjoy the most is when someone builds a kayak from my plans and I see the pride they have in what they have made.

  22. Lacking the equipment for larger projects, I make little wooden things- I’ve replaced my shift knob, parking brake handle, ashtray cover and such. With a towel on my lap I can watch TV and do hours of fine sanding. Or silly cartoons.

  23. Good god, how I hated “Zen & the art of…”. It felt like cheap dimestore philosophy & a crap narrative. Or it just reminded me too much of my dad, dragging us out into the middle of nowhere & promptly losing his shit every now and again. It’s on my mental shelf with “The Celestine Prophesy”. Gah.
    On the other hand, thats’s a sweet beemer…like the one crazy dad gave me when he was through with it, which in turn inspired me to wade through Persig’s muck. Much redder though. I went with charcoal when I repainted mine.
    Needles to say, I hope this book is better.

  24. I didn’t stick around for formal education luckily. I spent 2 years of high school hiding in the machine shop or working on cars before dropping out to work full time as a mechanic. I quit that for community college, which I quit soon after getting hired at a game development company where I learned software engineering. At first it was fulfilling, but now its mostly business stuff, which is incredibly boring. I work weekends blacksmithing, making knives, crap hounding, and doing all manner of work with my hands. Back when I was a truck mechanic I had a lot more fun I think.

  25. This might be an extended exercise in “the grass is always greener…”

    I’d guess that any work which you are mindful about, which is meaningful to you or you can make meaningful, is work that will feel satisfying to you.

    Someone upset in their cubicle crafting lines of code, dreaming about how awesome it would be to craft bookshelves as a carpenter? He probably wouldn’t “get it” as a carpenter either.

  26. @Usonia “Good god, how I hated “Zen & the art of…”. It felt like cheap dimestore philosophy & a crap narrative…”

    THANK YOU, USONIA!! I’ve always been embarrassed to say that I thought it was stupid and boring, when everyone else seemed to think it was some great piece of literature. Some nut gets up at dawn to adjust the valves on his Triumph. Big deal.
    In Chicago last Christmas I took a photo of a beautiful Airhead. It was black and white, and half covered in snow. Beautiful picture that didn’t come out. Dang!

  27. In Chicago last Christmas I took a photo of a beautiful Airhead. It was black and white, and half covered in snow.

    Leaving a bike out to be covered in snow isn’t going to keep that bike beautiful for long.

  28. “Leaving a bike out to be covered in snow isn’t going to keep that bike beautiful for long…”

    No kidding. I saw a lot of bikes, and bicycles, buried in snow, but none moving.

    I could never live in Chicago because the cars get so scummy. I’m a little fanatic about keeping my car clean and waxed. I’d have to wash it after every drive, and on long drives, I’d hit a car wash at the midpoint. Koo koo!

  29. I work in a cubicle all week doing nothing and creating no real value for anyone.

    Bob Slydell: You see, what we’re actually trying to do here is, we’re trying to get a feel for how people spend their day at work… so, if you would, would you walk us through a typical day, for you?
    Peter Gibbons: Yeah.
    Bob Slydell: Great.
    Peter Gibbons: Well, I generally come in at least fifteen minutes late, ah, I use the side door – that way Lumbergh can’t see me, heh heh – and, uh, after that I just sorta space out for about an hour.
    Bob Porter: Space out?
    Peter Gibbons: Yeah, I just stare at my desk; but it looks like I’m working. I do that for probably another hour after lunch, too. I’d say in a given week I probably only do about fifteen minutes of real, actual, work.

    Peter Gibbons: The thing is, Bob, it’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I just don’t care.
    Bob Porter: Don’t… don’t care?
    Peter Gibbons: It’s a problem of motivation, all right? Now if I work my ass off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don’t see another dime, so where’s the motivation? And here’s something else, Bob: I have eight different bosses right now.
    Bob Slydell: I beg your pardon?
    Peter Gibbons: Eight bosses.
    Bob Slydell: Eight?
    Peter Gibbons: Eight, Bob. So that means that when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That’s my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.

  30. OK, guys, this is officially getting weird. This is a blog. This is the opposite of “making something tangible and unique, by yourself, with your bare hands.” What are you people overcompensating for exactly?

  31. Well, nameless one, tomorrow this whole this article and the depending string of conversation will slip quietly into the history file.
    Meanwhile, me and Zuzu, He Who Weareth His Hat Upon His Nose, and others, are using our bare hands to craft tiny symbols into assemlies, lined up in groups, that communicate concepts to other people, often far beyond earshot. Getting weird is fun, especially when normalcy is getting boring. Overcompensating? We’re pretending we’re smart. Or creative… or we’ve got tiny dicks. Something like that.

  32. After 20 years as a machinist I have learned that the most sophisticated machine tool is not as near as complicated as the simplest person; whatever that’s worth.

  33. I got into farming after years as a DBA and unix admin. I would never, ever go back to the indoors and typing all day.

    There is very much still a stigma attached to working with one’s hands. For years I used to introduce myself by telling people what I used to do rather than my current profession because (a) I was mildly embarrassed and (b) I would get stupid comments like “Oh, so this is your summer job, hon?” or “Taking a sabbatical, huh? When do you plan to go back to real work?” Frankly, farming is more of an intellectual, physical, and emotional challenge than working in cube writing code ever was. And at the end of the day, I make watermelons. Not some program that’s going to get dumped in a few months because “The company’s headed in another direction now.” No one has ever cancelled my watermelon projects. Ever. I like that. I watch with great interest the immense satisfaction and clear confidence that high schoolers who volunteer at my farm get from spending time doing something with their hands, failing at things they *think* they do well but in fact don’t have the physical skill to do yet, watching themselves improve by simple rote work. Just awesome.

    PS Michael B. Crawford, marry me!

  34. I think some people are really missing the point when they compare this book to “Zen.” I really tried to get into that book in college (the perfect place for it) and even then realized it as mostly hippy drivil, that was so disconected from reality that it was impossible to nail down. Soul Craft is the exact opposite of this. Zen trys to make motorcycling more complicated and selfimportant than it really is. Soul Craft shows manual labor as it is; not a direct connection to the spiritual, but to the object of the labor.

  35. I just today picked this book up- and found your wonderful article when I was googling the author to learn more about him.

    First and foremost- a-men for neighborhood bookstores still existing- and I so love mine, especially now, for having put this in the window today!

    Crawford so brilliantly chronicles a journey that so many other folks I met in the AFM when racing, also experienced- tho all of us, much later in life than when he did. I started racing motorcycles when I was 20, and just felt drained and barren after years upon years of overachiever art and science/math academiapalooza. I knew I needed to do the most obscure and opposite thing I could think of- and that was it.

    Mechanics and machine-art are now such a gigantic part of my life- I don’t know who I’d be without them. My Jr. High shop classes were also invaluable, establishing a groundwork of skills that most kids today sadly don’t have the opportunity to get in the public sector.

    Thank you so much for highlighting this book on BB!! I so, so love it… and it honestly chronicles the closest thing in my own life that I’ve ever had, to anykind of a “rebellion,” but that later also manifested itself as a gigantic part of who I am that speaks to a place in my soul that Interaction Design never, ever will.

    Articulate as hell, funny as hell, he’s a *real* gearhead who speaks the real talk, clearly feels the same putter-put-put emotions about all things that go “vroom!,” and to boot- he’s a PhD in philosophy. So, so thrilled, I found this incredible book!

    Can’t wait to see yours Mark, when it comes out!

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