This 1956 film was made as a means of recruitment to interest young boys for shop class. It tells how the experience of designing and making something has benefits for the rest of your life. Even if you choose to get a different career.
It’s a fascinating view into an age when shop class was still a valued part of the curriculum. I’ve written earlier about how in the years to follow, working with your hands gradually became less fashionable. How you had to strive for a desk job, rather than actually doing something behind a workbench. And how this devaluation of manual trades is one of the roots of the problems we now face in our society. Work has become something abstract, as job descriptions became more vague and pumped up and money got to be the only goal. One of the great complains of our time is that people feel lost, lacking a sense of achievement and substance in their work…
I often see smart people, completely burned (and bored) out because they don’t see any purpose in their work. They feel trapped, like a hamster in a closed treadmill. Making money isn’t the only thing we work for. For most people it isn’t a goal in itself, and while a raise is nice in the short term, the happiness fades away very fast. One of our basic human needs is to know that what we do matters. We need a sense of achievement and progression. At the end of the day we like to oversee the result of what we have done. But it is hard to feel accomplished when all you have is some data, stored in magnetic pulses on a server somewhere on the other side of the ocean.
Another element is the lack of practical knowledge and understanding in managers. I earlier mentioned the “file incident”, but everybody can give examples like it. Once I encountered a manager who thought 2 men could whitewash 300 M² of dry wall in 30 minutes… And while I laughed at his face, it also occurred to me that he never held a brush or roller in his entire life…
The best managers I know are the ones who make themselves superfluous in the end. They make a team run so well that they are no longer needed. But instead most managers are constantly constructing ways to keep themselves at work. Implementing newer systems, trying to make an already efficient system more productive, but slowing it down in the process, which means they have another thing to monitor and write reports about.
Over the last 50 years organisations have become top-heavy. Both in financial as HR sense. The number of managers steadily grows, while the manual labor gets outsourced or lost to computer based technology. At the top of the monkey rock the salary and bonuses are raised by a larger percentage than down on the work floor…
Repeatedly I hear people with good jobs and high salaries that they are jealous of people who really make something with their hands. Stories of how their creative side got crushed by a parent or schoolteacher who told them to stop that nonsense and find “a real job” with better pay. As Picasso said: “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” We’re born creative, but get educated out of it along the line.
I met someone who loved to drive busses. His parents talked him out of becoming a chauffeur and wanted him to become a teacher. During the week he was a teacher, but at weekends and in his vacation he drove touring cars throughout Europe. Enjoying every minute of it. He couldn’t stop as a teacher, as he needed the higher salary. But he lived from weekend to weekend, trying to forget his boring teaching job. To his students he empathized the importance of following your heart, rather than a larger paycheck. I really felt sorry for him. He was a really talented teacher, but didn’t find any satisfaction or enjoyment in it.
Is there a way out?
I think there is, but it is quite hard to achieve and not very popular amongst parents and school boards: bring back shop class. Show children and young adults that it is important and fun to know how to make things. Most children love to craft, tinker and explore the world through their senses. Taking apart old apparatus to see the inner workings, building, repairing, drawing, painting, sculpting. Getting to know materials, their color, smell, texture. Learning through creative exploration and experimenting. But our current system educates them out of it. Strive for high pay, rather than something that really suits your interests and talents. And although it’s very efficient, it’s a race to the bottom of human esteem. It may give us more than enough to make a living, but often doesn’t leave enough space and time to actually make it into living a life. The sad paradox of our western economy and society.
What would you prefer lying in your deathbed? A large amount of money in the bank earned at a job you hate? Or looking back on a fulfilled life? Material vs. spiritual wealth.
A personal note…
I was forced to ask myself that question a bit earlier in my life. As the work I did was slowly killing me. The boredom and lack of fulfillment I experienced in my job completely drained me. Feeling trapped in a cage of wage and obligations, I simply didn’t care for anything anymore. After a couple of years pushing myself forward it landed me with a combined burn-/bore-out and depression. There were times when rather than boarding the train to work I rather had jumped in front of it. The monthly paycheck couldn’t fill up the growing emptiness inside.
When I finally broke down, it was like the last piece of ground crumbled away under my feet. I remember standing at a workbench and having the feeling I got hit in the back if my head. Hours later Sandra found me sleeping in my own bed. One of my colleagues said I told him I was ill and had to go home. I recall nothing of the whole thing. Haven’t got a clue how I got home.
The last 4,5 years have been a struggle. Both trying to get back on track as with official authorities. And it isn’t over yet. Over the years it has become apparent that I can no longer handle pressure from outside. When someone pushes me too hard to do something I simply break down. They tried to force me back into the corporate straight jacket. But every time they did I completely disintegrated and had to start all over again.
The way up…
With the help of a team of psychologists, psychiatrists and other therapists we determined that I fall both in the gifted (I talked about that earlier) as the ASS spectrum (the latter lightly, as a mild form of Aspergers).
No this doesn’t mean I am anti-social or a sort of ‘rainman’ (who is a savant btw.), but it has some implications for me to function. My brain is simply wired somewhat differently. All my senses are on full, loud noises, intense light or smell, temperature, textures. They all come in unfiltered and can easily overwhelm me. And while this can be a great advantage while making precision instruments, it also can completely drain me when there is an overload. At birthday parties I literally overhear and follow all conversations and have trouble focussing on one of them. This can be rather frustrating, more because most conversations at events like these are quite empty and useless. But it also gives me the ability to find structures, make combinations and gain insights from things others overlook or don’t see. And to cultivate an encyclopaedical knowledge of almost everything.
Most people who have met me know I am not someone for small talk. Stating the obvious or having the same conversation over and over again is just useless. So don’t try to get me into a water cooler conversation about sports. Soccer is just a game of 22 millionaires running after and kicking a leather-covered balloon in their underwear. It’s a game, not some kind of religion or cultural highlight. So stop making such a fuss about it… I know useless conversations as these are seen as a social lubricant, but to me they are just annoying.
But while most people on the spectrum need a strict routine, it doesn’t work for me. It just gets me bored out of my skull (this is a part of the gifted characteristics). That’s why I need to work on multiple different projects at once. Without that I completely fall to pieces. I need the qualitative challenge to keep it interesting. And while most of my projects seem totally different and unrelated, they are all parts of one big puzzle to me.
The official authorities dealing with work related problems in the Netherlands are harsh, rude and indifferent. Rather than helping people with problems they break them further down. They are uncooperative in looking for solutions. Treating people like garbage and criminals. Pressure me to accept work that only increases the problems. Over the years I have encountered enough incomprehension, ignorance, incompetence and bureaucracy to write another Kafka novel, or probably a trilogy. But maybe more on that later.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not lazy or afraid of working. Far from it. People who worked with me can vouch for that. I love to work, and at a good day I can do more than most people in a whole week. But not all days are good days, and the things I mentioned before demand some specific conditions for me to function. Like non-repetitive work in a safe and calm environment without many people around. Working on my own, without deadlines.
“But you give lectures talk to people at events and teach guitar making?”
I have never had a problem with public speaking. Even started out as history teacher. When in front of a crowd I am enthusiastic, telling about something I’m passionate about. Beside, the larger the group, the more they blend into one large crowd. The same with teaching instrument making. It’s a passion I like to pass on to others. Beside I love to help people and learn a lot myself from their approach and work. A thing that also helps is that it isn’t fulltime. After a couple of days like that I like to become a hermit again, crawling back to my shop, recharging and processing all impressions.
One thing that also became clear to me is that I am not interested in money, wealth or social status. The only thing we need is enough to pay rent, insurance and the normal costs of living. Living in a small 40 m² house is a deliberate choice, keeping our (carbon) footprint on the world as small as possible. We don’t drive a car. We don’t need status symbols, like a rolex, name brand clothes or a large television. We simply don’t care for those things. Some of our friends drive beautiful cars, and our neighbour has an enormous television, but that they have those things doesn’t mean we have to get them two. We’re happy for them that they like and enjoy their cars and tv, but there is no need to get envious or jealous about it. And just that you like something doesn’t automatically mean that you need to have it yourself. The Citroën DS for example. In my opinion one of the most beautiful cars ever made, far ahead of its time. An absolute masterpiece of design and technological innovation. I love them, and really enjoy seeing one driving by, but don’t feel the desire to possess one myself.
What I believe in is the power of sharing and adding something positive to the world. I try to do that through my instruments, writing (blogs, books, articles), research, lectures, re-enactment, helping organizing events and exhibitions, doing art projects; like painting Icons, photography, the Duckies and the Little Free Library. Trying to get others involved, bring people together to do something; work, learn and get to know each other.
But like I said this can be quite hard in our present era, driven by individualism, ego(t)ism and profit maximalization. Everything gets judged by monetary, rather than ethical value. Something is expensive? Oh, then it must be good… Something is cheap or free? Then it must be worthless. People get treated like production means, human resources, that can be discarded after use. They become faceless and soulless numbers on datasheets. Parts of the plat machinery, like in Chaplin’s “Modern Times“. When someone can’t keep up with this rat race of our market driven economy he or she is regarded as weak, a liability or even a threat. A problem which has to be dealt and done away with. But we’re reaching the edges of the system. It’s grinding its gears and wearing out our lives and the world we live in. Never before have we had so many cases of depression, burn-out and forthcoming suicide. Existential depressions often already starting in school. Young people who don’t see any perspective or don’t know what to do with their lives.
In Ken Robinson’s fantastic book “The Element” he quotes an e-mail he received from a 17-year old student, after his 2006 TED-Talk. I think it gives a rather good illustration of what I am talking about.
” Here I am sitting quietly unable to sleep in my room. It’s currently 6:00 a.m., and this is the period of my life that is supposed to change me forever. After a few weeks, I will be a senior and colleges seem to be the main topic of my life right now . . . and I hate it. It’s not that I don’t want to go to college, it’s just that I had thoughts of doing other things that wouldn’t suppress my ideas. I was so dead confident about something I wanted to do and devote my time with, but to everyone around me it seems like getting a Ph.D. or some boring job is key to being successful in life. To me I thought that spending your time on something boring and meaningless was a bad idea. This is the one opportunity in my life . . . heck it’s the one life I’ll ever get and if I don’t do something drastic, I will never get a chance to do it. I hate it when I get some funny look from my parents or my friends’ parents when I tell them I want to pursue something completely different than the trite old medical- or business-related job.
Somehow, I stumbled upon a video with a guy talking about ideas I’ve had in my head for some time now and it utterly shook me to euphoria. . . . If everyone wants to be a pharmacist, in the future, a job in the medical field won’t be such a prestigious profession. I don’t want money, I don’t want some lousy “expensive” car. I want to do something meaningful with my life, but support is something I rarely get. I just want to tell you that you’ve personally made me believe once again that I can follow my dream. As a painter, a sketcher, a music writer, a sculptor, and a writer, I truly thank you for giving me hope. My art teacher always gives me stares when I would do something odd. I once poured my paintbrush cleaning water on top of a painting my teacher said was “completed and ready to be graded.” Boy, would you have loved the look on her face. These boundaries are so clearly set in school and I want to break free and create the ideas that come from my head at three in the morning. I hate drawing plain old shoes or trees and I don’t like having this “grading” of art. Since when should someone “grade” art? I bet if Pablo Picasso handed in one of his pieces to his old art teacher, she’d absolutely flip and fail him. I asked my teacher if I could incorporate sculpture with canvas and have both intertwined together and have my sculpture give the illusion that the painting was alive and coming towards the viewer. . . . Her response was that it wasn’t allowed! I am going to take an AP art studio class my senior year and they tell me that I can’t do three-dimensional art? It’s insane and we need people like you to come down to New Jersey and give a speech or two about this looked-down-upon thing called creativity. It pains me when the minute I say I want to be an artist when I grow up, all I get are laughs or frowns. Why can’t people do the things they love to do? Is happiness a mansion, some big-screen television screen, watching numbers scroll go by as you cringe when S&P goes down a point? . . . This world has turned into an overpopulated, scary, and competitive place. Thank you for those nineteen minutes and twentynine seconds of pure truth. Cheers
– Anonymous student in reaction to Ken Robinson’s TED-talk –
Especially the underlined points. Is happiness in material things? If you have to believe media and advertising it has to be. The default modus of “the more, the better”.
Another thing I would like to illustrate this point with is this quote by Matthew B. Crawford from his book “Shop Class as Soul Craft”.
“If the goal is to earn a living, then, maybe it isn’t really true that 18-year-olds need to be imparted with a sense of panic about getting into college (though they certainly need to learn). Some people are hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, against their own inclinations and natural bents, when they would rather be learning to build things or fix things. One shop teacher suggested to me that “in schools, we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement. Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.”
A gifted young person who chooses to become a mechanic rather than to accumulate academic credentials is viewed as eccentric, if not self-destructive. There is a pervasive anxiety among parents that there is only one track to success for their children. It runs through a series of gates controlled by prestigious institutions. Further, there is wide use of drugs to medicate boys, especially, against their natural tendency toward action, the better to “keep things on track.” I taught briefly in a public high school and would have loved to have set up a Ritalin fogger in my classroom. It is a rare person, male or female, who is naturally inclined to sit still for 17 years in school, and then indefinitely at work.”
The trades suffer from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience.
– Matthew B. Crawford – “Shop Class as Soul Craft”
I don’t know how we can counter these social developments. Or if it is even possible to change anything. For now I’m rather pessimistic about it. Especially in our current political environment, where a loud mouth and rudeness is hailed as one of the things our society desperately needs. Mocking, bullying and suppressing people who are a bit different, who don’t fit in the ‘normal’ picture has become a virtue. And they get blamed for problems they never asked for. Marked as ‘undesirables’ projects to help them are rapidly broken down. There has been an inflation of the value and integrity of work and workers. But in the end this will break us up.
There already is a shortage of skilled craftspeople in all fields, especially plumbing, restoration, technical trades but also patient and elderly care. This will increase in the following years, as the babyboom-generation retires. But then it will be too late, as they also take a vast amount of knowledge along with them. We need to stop this hollowing out of our society by only thinking in terms of monetary value and profit. The Dutch poet/artist Lucebert once wrote that “All of value is defenseless”. And it’s true, things of true beauty and value are often precious and vulnerable.
One thing I know is that I am not suitable for the corporate rat race and have to try to find other ways. And I hope to find some support for that, rather than constant rejection.