Boredom at work – How craftsmanship can be the key…

Last week I found these two educational films from the sixties. They deal about the dangers of boredom at work. Something I have first hand experience with.

After lutherie school I started working, first at a home-depot shop, later at a guitar factory. In all jobs I did – after the first excitement of learning a new trade faded – boredom set in. And because I pushed on long enough it morphed itself into depression and burnout after a while.

The reason I like these movies, because -even though a bit dramatized- they give a good impression of how boredom can infect and affect your life.

And part II, made in 1962…

To me it has been a real struggle and the battle hasn’t been won yet.

When I fell out in the spring of 2012, I was assigned a company doctor, who had to determine the problem. The first one was a kind man, but he didn’t listen. His only verdict was to restart in my old job. When that attempt failed I had to visit another company doctor, who told me I was dramatizing. He said I had to keep trying in my old job. I tried, but fell out again. Getting myself deeper and deeper into trouble. The job became more and more production work with less and less craftsmanship and creativity involved. The utensils we got looked more like Fisher Price than real tools and they were used to perform the same task over and over again. The work became so dull that I listened to lectures and audiobooks on my Ipod to get some sort of intellectual food and drag myself through the days. Beside this the quality of the instruments was made subservient to the quantity we had to push out. Something that clashed with my conscience.

After dragging myself to and from work each day I finally collapsed. Overworked, dead-tired, over-bored, depressed and anxious. This wasn’t what I had signed up for when I chose to become a guitar maker.

After the burn-out I landed with a psychiatrist specialized in gifted individuals. What became apparent over the last years is that I’m not suited for repetitive tasks. I need a challenge, not quantitative but qualitative to keep things interesting enough. To me this is like breathing, and when work lacks that element it feels like I am suffocating. I need multiple projects in different areas to keep myself sharp and the monster of depression from the door.

“I’ve heard there are two types of welders (people): production welders enjoy doing the same thing over and over again and maintenance welders who hate it when they have to do the same job twice.”

– Robert M. Pirsig – ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’

That’s why I find instrument making so interesting. It’s the one field in which all my interest come together and contribute to the whole.

But it has been difficult to explain this to those company doctors and government officials. The oonly response I got from them is that I’m making up the problems. That I don’t want to work and should “man up”. Please don’t get me wrong; I do want to work, and there is nothing I would love more than being able to work a regular 9-17 job. Finally be ‘normal’ like everybody else, fit in with social conventions and expectations. But I can’t. This is not a matter of shaping up and changing my attitude. Wish it was that simple. It runs much deeper than that.

“The restless mind, the inquisitive and conquesting spirit have a natural resentment against the inhibitory influence coming from this endless repetition of tasks, that in themselves can be refined to the maximum, but never open new perspectives.”

– Hella Haasse – “Zelfportret als Legkaart”

The balance between head and hands. My work is always a symbiosis between both sides. And I need both elements to keep me going. One can’t go without the other. Without the desire for knowledge and intellectual exploration I get bored out of my skull. But without the practical side in the workshop the knowledge just remains theory.

In the past I tried to approach both ways individually, just like the public opinion demands. To only work with my head, or only with my hands. But in both cases the other suffered, and ultimately destroyed everything; I got stuck.

Unfortunately there aren’t many jobs that have this element. A while ago I found a quote by a guitarmaker who said he found his “poem” in guitarmaking. It really covers the feeling, like a captivating beauty that makes you pursue it. After my burn-out someone send me the article “Why Lutherie?” by Ervin Somogyi. It really spoke to me, finding out that I am not the only crazy one out there. Occasionally I find other people like that, instrumentmakers, craftspeople, philosophers, musicians, professors, writers, readers. Some have become dear friends and acquaintances and when I meet them it is like fireworks. Exchanging ideas, techniques, helping, learning. Often it works like a catalyst, a moment when lingering ideas become viable plans and new insane concepts get born. And while boredom drains all energy and kills creativity, this (re)charges me.

Working in my own shop, at various projects and in different fields (designing, making, repairing, restoring and customising instruments, historical research, writing, making art, giving lectures, teaching) is the one thing that keeps me going. When that gets threatened by the public demand for conformity I completely collapse again. Which has happened over and over again since my burn-out. The attempts to let me re-integrate in my old job failed. Because the nature of the work didn’t change, and the social dynamics at the company clashed with my own values. Later outplacement was tried, but it proved impossible to find something suitable.

I’m not a very sociable person, and have never been. The contemporary mantra of ‘teamwork’ is something isn’t mine. I prefer to work solo. That doesn’t mean that I can’t work with others. But there is a difference between collaboration and co-laboration. The first means you perform one task together, the second means you work alongside eachother. This might seem a subtile difference, but to me it’s the division between massive frustration or actual good work. I haven’t got enough patience to wait for somebody else to catch up or give another instruction for something I could have finished already. At the home depot shop I used to send colleagues away on a wild goose chase for some non existing tool or piece of hardware – like a plinth ladder, drilling soap, airplugs, wooden wire cutters, cork hammers (ideal for work under water), skyhooks, glass anvils or a little box of 8 mm wood knots – because not having them around helped me to finish the work in half the time.

The one thing this doesn’t seem true for is teaching. But that’s because the demanded result is different. The main goal of teaching is to learn somebody else what you know, and often this involves practice and multiple explanations. I rather explain something for a second or third time (often in a slightly different manner) than that someone doesn’t have a clue afterwards. I love to share my knowledge and learn from questions people give. Gaining new insights and ideas, I often learn as much from the people I instruct as vice versa.

I have given up the hope to ever find a regular job that fits. In the past all of them have ended in fiasco. But people still try to force me back into that corporate straightjacket of the respectable employee. A piece of clothing might be suiting others, giving them a sense of identity and a cosy certainty. Not that I haven’t tried, but it was just too small, leaving no room to breath. And it’s not that I despise people who do fit in that picture, I would love to be ‘normal’ and able to do it myself. But history has proven I can’t because in the end it simply suffocates me.

The key to me is craftsmanship and quality, in every part of life. To keep things interesting and in balance. The alternative is simply being bored to death…

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4 Responses to Boredom at work – How craftsmanship can be the key…

  1. Lenny says:

    Ik kwam toevallig op je blog terecht omdat een wederzijdse vriend van ons je post likete op Facebook. En wauw. Wat een herkenning…

    Ik ben zelf ook hoogbegaafd, maar zelfs binnen het ‘clubje’ hoogbegaafden vond ik tot nu toe nauwelijks mensen zoals ik. Maar wat jij beschrijft is bijna precies hoe ik ook in elkaar zit. Me altijd op het randje van verveling bevinden in mijn werk, ongeacht waar ik werk. Zowel met m’n handen als met m’n hoofd willen werken. De irritatie van gedwongen worden met anderen ‘samen’ te werken, terwijl je het in je eentje zo veel efficiënter en effectiever kunt. En de lol die je toch in lesgeven hebt.

    Ik heb momenteel een acceptabele werkplek gevonden: bij een universiteit. Ik ben een soort intern adviesbureau voor collega’s en naast vakinhoudelijke expertise loslaten op allerhande problemen, geef ik ook trainingen aan deze collega’s. Met mijn handen werken gaat helaas niet, maar daarom werk ik maar 4 dagen per week en besteed ik mijn vrije tijd aan de meest uiteenlopende hobbies: viool en doedelzak spelen, kostuums naaien, bandjes weven, dansen, re-enactment, LARP, en alles maken wat ik wil hebben maar niet naar mijn eisen en smaak in een winkel kan vinden. Daarmee houd ik mezelf op de been.

    Ik ben blij voor je dat jij een werkplek hebt weten te vinden waarin je alles kunt combineren. Want ik zit regelmatig op mijn werk de uren af te tellen totdat ik weer naar huis kan en iets nuttigs / productiefs kan gaan doen.

    Dankjewel voor het delen.


  2. darinmolnar says:

    Bravo! Your best post yet!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. alexholdendotnet says:

    I think we are rather similar in this, though I never reached the point of breakdown. I can do repetitive tasks, even enjoy them, for a limited amount of time. Maybe a couple of hours. Then I get restive and start looking around for distraction. I’ve done jobs where I spent weeks doing pretty much the same thing all day every day, and by the end I was going crazy with boredom. Imagine what it must be like to spend your entire working life doing one simple task millions of times! Luckily there is less of that type of job today than in the days before automated manufacturing.

    This is one of the main things that appeals to me about being a solo concertina maker: there is such a wide range of different skills involved that when I get bored of gluing hundreds of bits of leather onto a set of bellows I can instead spend some time profiling reeds, cut out some wooden casement parts, turn some buttons on the lathe, rivet some action posts together, work on the design for a new instrument, or any of a hundred other different tasks, before returning to the bellows and making some more progress on them with a fresh mind.

    I find it’s also good to have a mixture of tasks to do that are more intellectual or more physical. Both the brain and the body need exercise and rest at different times.

    Liked by 1 person

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