Mastery and shop class

Truthfully, I don't love to work with my hands -- except to type, as I am now, and to cook, which I do for my family. I don't even like to garden. So, sadly, I'll probably never dismantle my car, or even change the oil. One could say, "So what?" I'm making an adequate living using my skills as a writer. But, lately, I've had this gnawing feeling of not knowing how to do things. Maybe it's this recession that makes me feel less secure about how all of us are making our way in the world.

That's why I'd like to recommend the book "Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work" by Matthew B. Crawford. He posits that we have ceded our abilities to master our possessions as more and more objects are engineered to turn us into infants. Even washing our hands now no longer requires turning a knob. An idiot light comes on to tell us if our automobile tires are flat, relieving us of the responsibility of looking at them and judging whether they need air. (I don't know how to put air in my tires -- always count on my husband for that task.)

His book says that this is deliberate, and part of a trend of degradation of blue-collar work. He cites Frederick Winslow Taylor, the inventor of super-efficient factory systems that turn crafts people into drones, allowing them to be paid less for their work. Even white collar work is becoming more and more mindless, with fewer opportunities to exercise judgment. As a result, we lose the ability to do so. 

I remember learning a little about this when I covered retailing 15 years ago. At the time, retailers were switching to a matrix-buying system, with store buyers having to order according to a set pattern from a certain set of vendors. The merchant's ability to make decisions became more and more circumscribed as their upper-level executives became more risk adverse. No wonder so many stores are so similar. Safe, dull. 

When I advise young people about journalism, I tell them to "pee on the turf," by which I mean that they need to take physical command of their new beats. Show up at events, roam the halls, hang out where the people they cover hang out. That kind of physical possession equates to mastery and mastery leads to self-satisfaction and confidence.

Now mastery in journalism includes mastering technology that goes beyond pencil and notepad -- blackberries, tape recorders, video cameras, blogging, tweeting.

Crawford talks about this all in the context of telling young people to step off the mindless acquisition of college degrees when they don't have a passion for the work. Better, he says, is to pursue something that they can master and that they want to master.

In the next few weeks and months, I want to think about things to master -- either personally or on the job. I invite you to join me and let me know what you want to master. I'll tell you how I'm doing as well.