Many of the times when I’m writing about craft, I’m talking about being close to the work and its intricacies and materials. Last week, I started re-reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book I last read, appropriately, in 1984 while I was in college. It was a perfect undergrad read: a salad of philosophy (complete with interwoven Platonic dialogues), personal wellness, a post-hippy balanced suspicion and enjoyment of technology, and a focus on the word/idea quality. (It was also my introduction to Chautauqua, a tradition which filled my mind for many years and was the name of a school paper I started my senior year.) The perfect summer after freshman year book.
This weekend, the NYTimes has a magazine piece about working with one’s hands, doing physical labor in an age of info-workers. The writer, Matthew Crawford, is a PhD, who once struggled to find work after rejecting the nomadic life of seeking tenure. When he got a gig, heading up a DC policy shop, he stayed long enough to buy tools and start his own, admittedly under-priced, one-man motorcycle repair business.
Both the book and the article seem to say things about craft, and they definitely both reference motorcycles, so a blog post that strings together quotes from each.
In Zen…, there is an early salvo about quality as the area of focus:
‘What’s new?’ is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively results in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned to be concerned with the question “What is best?”, a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answer tend to move the silt downstream.
I’m only 60 pages into the re-read, but I remember and feel that the rest of the book, which the author Robert Pirsig describes charmingly (and goofily) as a Chautauqua, is about how we comprehend and pursue quality in our lives. This gets into values, personal quirks and tastes, and most of all a cognitive approach to one’s life and its problems. This is where the Crawford article resonates.
[Motorcycle repair] 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.
This passage seems romantic in its sense-based level of work and deeply satisfying. Crawford has a body of knowledge and experience that has translated into a finely tuned engagement of his senses. I picture him looking at the engine and considering one possibility with his mind, while reaching a hard to get to place and considering another possibility with his fingers while he samples the oil’s viscosity and a third possibility by the smell. In some cases, I imagine he can smell or hear the problem as a customer rides his motorcycle into the shop. If the problem lies deeper than his immediate senses, I picture him puzzling over the data, House-like, and testing theories in his head before testing them on the machine.
Earlier in the piece, Crawford talks about the intangibility of achievement in office life. Back in the 90s I split my time between database programming and writing union and political propaganda and position papers. The latter activity was where my heart was, while the former paid the bills and supported the first. But there were times when programming was the more, and more deeply, satisfying pursuit. Sure, I’d get excited when a speech I wrote came to a great crescendo or when I found just the right way to tee up an issue. But the computer work was oddly gratifying — figuring out a thorny bug, finding a better, more elegant way to work through a routine, handing someone a disk with compiled code that ran cleanly, running a program overnight and seeing that it had run flawlessly in the morning (this was in the x86 days). It felt great. I didn’t do it for too many years, but I did develop that extra-sense where I could just smell what the problem was. It felt great.
Not only was the work satisfying, it was mine. When I had written good code, I knew I had and there was no doubt. I could settle back and know the job was well done. When I was explaining my double lives of different satisfactions to friends, I remember being quite passionate about it. “When I finish a program, I know it works and I know it’s as fast as possible and can’t be written any tighter. So much better, sometimes, than writing a speech any idiot can say they don’t like. So much easier to prove that one line of code works better than the other whereas with a speech, someone, or I, will always be able to run the work down.” That last bit is part of the personal psychology in Zen… — finding the confidence to say this is good, this is quality and be content and move on. But the other satisfaction, of absolutely knowing seems connected to better sleep and better mornings and better breathing.
Crawford highlights an interesting dynamic around the intangibles of office work:
A manager has to make many decisions for which he is accountable. Unlike an entrepreneur with his own business, however, his decisions can be reversed at any time by someone higher up the food chain . . . It’s important for your career that these reversals not look like defeats, and more generally you have to spend a lot of time managing what others think of you. Survival depends on a crucial insight: you can’t back down from an argument that you initially made in straightforward language, with moral conviction, without seeming to lose your integrity. So managers learn the art of provisional thinking and feeling.
When I was writing speeches, I was self-employed, so I took pleasure in putting out my own work to my clients. I might fail, lose the gig, have to go back for a costly re-write that robbed me of a weekend, but I remember liking the fact that it was my making and doing. But the self-protective double-think Crawford mentions seems like a loss to a person.
This is getting long and connected to more life-stuff than craft-stuff, but I sent this article to a former boss of mine, a man who’s very wealthy and had just started reading the article when I sent him the link. He wrote back:
I just spent the day on Saturday installing the lighting on our roof and when the day was done sat back in the waning daylight hours savoring the work sipping wine with a friend discussing that exact topic of “working with hands”.