Link: The Case for Working With Your Hands

by Daniel_Burfoot 1 min read28th May 200912 comments


The NYTimes recently publised a long semi-autobiographical article written by Michael Crawford, a University of Chicago Phd graduate who is currently employed as a motorcycle mechanic. The article is partially a somewhat standard lament about the alienation and drudgery of modern corporate work. But it is also very much about rationality. Here's an excerpt:

As it happened, in the spring I landed a job as executive director of a policy organization in Washington. This felt like a coup. But certain perversities became apparent as I settled into the job. It sometimes required me to reason backward, from desired conclusion to suitable premise. The organization had taken certain positions, and there were some facts it was more fond of than others. As its figurehead, I was making arguments I didn’t fully buy myself. Further, my boss seemed intent on retraining me according to a certain cognitive style — that of the corporate world, from which he had recently come. This style demanded that I project an image of rationality but not indulge too much in actual reasoning. As I sat in my K Street office, Fred’s life as an independent tradesman gave me an image that I kept coming back to: someone who really knows what he is doing, losing himself in work that is genuinely useful and has a certain integrity to it. He also seemed to be having a lot of fun.

I think this article will strike a chord with programmers. A large part of the satisfaction of motorcycle work that Crawford describes comes from the fact that such work requires one to confront reality, however harsh it may be. Reality cannot be placated by hand-waving, Powerpoint slides, excuses, or sweet talk. But the very harshness of the challenge means that when reality yields to the finesse of a craftsman, the reward is much greater. Programming has a similar aspect: a piece of software is basically either correct or incorrect. And programming, like mechanical work, allows one to interrogate and engage the system of interest through a very high-bandwidth channel: you write a test, run it, tweak it, re-run, etc.