Jacob Grier on the Many Faces of “Intellectual” Work; Or, Living the Life You Love

Jacob Grier just posted a lovely essay (that I bet he wrote off the top of his head, damn it. Why can’t I do that??) on the pleasures of the “working” life. “Working” as in what used to be called “manual labor.”

His jumping off point is this essay in last Sunday’s New York Times magazine. It hit home with me, as does Jacob’s essay. I’ve had what can only be described as an, ahem, diverse work history. I endured a mercifully short-lived career doing clerical work. Quel nightmare: I can’t stand the 8 to 5 bit; hated, and I mean HATED, the office politics crapola. (This was waaay back in early 1970s, when men ruled the office and women, working their menial jobs, clawed at each other and hoped the men would whisk them away.) (For more on this, see “Mad Men.”)

But I spent far more years in “manual” work. Blue collar work. (Or, as the sociologists call it when said work is being performed by a woman, “pink collar” work. Ugh. What a phrase.) I waited tables for years (about fifteen total). Worked for a city street department, mostly running a jack hammer (at which I was quite good).

Worked as a union carpenter for four years. I was (and to a certain extent still am) fabulously strong. Need someone to haul two sheets of plywood up two flights of stairs? No problem! All that waitressing also came in handy: I had far better organizational skills than the men I worked with.

But, I discovered, I had zero spatial skills and was a lousy carpenter. What learned from all those years was this:  I was bored. I had nothing against the work, and absolutely nothing against the people I worked with. Indeed, to this day, I miss hanging out with busboys and dishwashers.

I had to face facts: I was slowly, but surely, dying. The work was not me. I don’t function well in “groups.” (And still don’t.) I am bored by work that requires using my hands (unless it’s cooking). Have no patience for fixing stuff, yard work, etc. I mean, if I have to do it, no problem. I can do it. Hand me a screwdriver and I’ll figure out what needs to be done.) (The tool, I mean, not the drink, which is icky beyond words.

So I went off to college, thinking I’d find my true calling. And, after a few fits and starts, did. (See the bio and “My Life As A Loser”)

The point, such as it is, is this: I admire and appreciate “work” in all its forms, but understand that many people indavertently end up doing work they hate. The most painful part of teaching at university was dealing with 19-year-olds who’d been shoved into college by well-meaing adults, when what those kids wanted to do was cook, or repair engines, or make things, or paint walls, or whatever.

What they wanted to do, in short, was the kind of work that modern American society too often scorns, but which is, for many people, satisfying and engaging and creative.

The good news is that some people figure it out. They strike their own path, regardless of what others expect. They figure out what makes their brains — and their souls — happy.

So to Jacob I say: Here’s to you. If I were in Portland, I’d raise a well-made drink, preferabably one created by you, in your honor.

7 thoughts on “Jacob Grier on the Many Faces of “Intellectual” Work; Or, Living the Life You Love

  1. Contra:I’m finding this sudden celebration of Manual Labor, in the NYT and elsewhere unimpressively in step with the mood of the times. These ideas have been laid by others, more convincingly and with none of the cloying self-congratulatory affect, or meta-justifications of the present crop. I’m reminded of a passage from one of my favorite books:”If you try to disguise a machine like this, say by raking the ends or breaking the sheer, you produce a box with unconvincing concessions to style that only emphasize that you’re ashamed of it.”That’s not to say that a barista, or a motorcycle mechanic or even a boat designer can’t be a philosopher too. But apologias (or apologies) have a funny way of bommeranging, dontcha think?

  2. I have been thinking about this for a while and there are two aspects that are important to me as I think about “Knowledge Worker” jobs and “Trade” jobs. I too, have had my share of both.The first aspect would be the satisfaction that you get from doing something that results in an object that you can hold in your hand, wrap it up as a gift or put it on a shelf. I work for a company that makes software, and at the end of the day, we have made a computer program. I can’t examine it in my hands and I certainly can’t explain to my parents what it is that I do that results in that product. My mom evaluates complexity of technology by asking how many batteries it takes. Simple things take 1 or 2 batteries, complex things take a lot more.My other job, doesn’t pay, but I like to think of it as a job because I like the idea of doing a job that results in a thing that I can hold. I make wine and beer and an uber-hobby. And when I am done, I can hold it up to the light and see my work, I can taste it, smell it, and share it with friends. There is a lot of satisfaction in that.The second aspect makes me a bit sad with where we have come to. I can not understand, for the life of me, why someone who is good at what they do, works their tail off, and provides a necessary service to others and their community, can not make enough money from that to support their family. It makes me sick that in order to live comfortably in an area like the San Francisco Bay area and provide for your family, you need practically need to have an advanced degree and work in a major industry. Yes, there are exceptions, but why can’t a fireman, policeman or mechanic, make enough money doing that to live in the area with their family that they provide the service for. I think that anyone who has the aptitude and wants to get advanced education should be able to, but if someone has a skill and works hard providing it, should be able to support their family. We seem to be loosing our middle class, and it ticks me off.tim http://littlewinery.blogspot.com

  3. No surprise, I agree with both of you (and Tony, I KNEW I could count on you for the contrarian view).I don’t have any patience at all with the romanticizing of manual labor. It’s called “manual” for a reason. (Last night I was reminded of the architect who showed up at a job site I worked on, a house he had designed. He’d decided he wanted to experience the oneness with the wood or whatever, so he brought a boombox and a Mozart tape, grabbed a shovel, and pitched in to help the laborers digging a hole for something or other. No surprise: he lasted less than ten minutes. Hard work is NOT romantic. It’s not.)Anyway, Tim’s point is spot on: it irritates the shit out of me that garbage collectors don’t make much money, because we’d all scream and yell if they stopped doing their jobs. But ditto to the nth degree police, fire crews, EMTs, etc. Or, for that matter, teachers!Am reminded on that point of a novel by, I think, Marge Piercey, set in a utopian future where everyone had to share the scut work (eg, once a week or so, it was your turn to clean the toilets.) Bare minimum, cleaning toilets provides perspective on the world.I know that when the revolution comes, I’ll either be sent to the countryside and put to work weeding gardens. I’ll be VERY unhappy, but at least I’ll have my memories of the years I got to spend doing work I love (eg, mind work, rather than handwork…)

  4. Forgot to say: I get nervous, tres nervous, when I hear politicians promise or argue that “every kid should be able to go to college.”No, no, and no. Not every kid WANTS to go to college. And not every kid is “wired” for college.I mean, if we reversed it and said “Every kid should have the right to go to vocational training school,” there’s be rioting in the streets, right? (Well, okay, I exaggerate, but you get my drift…)

  5. I think that if higher education got back to being presented as something that gives you the tools to better understand the world, rather than something you need to do to make the big bucks. Then, people who wanted to better understand the world would take it to that level, and those that wanted to just make the big bucks, would go to college if they needed to get the knowledge to do it, and go out and do something that is worth the big bucks.I have worked with many people that think that getting the degree is the 99% of the prerequisite for the corner office and the golden parachute. And that is reinforced by the unfortunate situation that getting a college education is becoming so expensive that you need to expect that in order to pay off your student loans.

  6. Um anything but toilets? ooo my wife will kill me for saying THAT! I meant Office toilets…..as for college… I hear what you are saying, but… There are lots of kids who might want to go to college and are “wired” will never even really think about it let alone get the chance…. It’s a huge spectrum of those who should can and can’t…also… a LOT of kids probably shouldn’t really be going to college at 18 anyways… but then again, the opportunity doesn’t get much better later… just sayingdave

  7. NO kids should go to college at 18. If I had my way, the minimum entry age for college would be 26. I speak, of course, from my experience rather than anyone else’s:I had no idea what I was doing when I trotted off to college at age 18 (it wasn’t my idea….) I finally wised up and flunked myself out, and then went back when I was 30 and had half a clue.And then I taught college students for 14 years — and saw nothing to change my mind that college is not for the young.


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