By the time of my layoff from the cushy graphic design position I occupied at the tanking and corrupt MCI WorldCom in 2004, I had established myself as a dependable co-worker and recognized employee. There was nothing difficult about the rules of the job, expectations were easy to anticipate and exceed. My ability to multitask was top-notch. Indeed, the spike in the amount of awards I received coincided directly with the invention of Napster and the availability of non-stop, music-junkie euphoria that kept me tied to the keyboard all day now and which served as my salve against the monotony of the job.
Afterwards, I was fortunate enough to quickly determine which of my job skills were learned and adopted out of necessity after college (mindless flexibility, the ability to speak and understand doubletalk) and which were natural and enjoyable for me (a willingness to fill a niche by learning new skills.) The more time goes by, the more my memories of that job become like that of a long video game — a bunch of endless pixels on a screen, forever. I was good at it, but who really gives a shit? I was embarrassed to tell people what I did for a living.
Not long after that, I secured an apprenticeship in Edward Wright’s frame shop in Hillsborough, North Carolina. After six months of intensive tutelage, I was commissioned with building hand carved and gilded picture frames on my own. For the first time in my career, I was producing a physical object — one that melded beauty and function, and that I was proud to stand behind because I had created it myself from the rawest of materials. The standards of this job were higher, and in many ways more subjective than the last… Were the dimensions of each frame correct? That was easy enough to determine. Did each one capture the spirit of the artwork it surrounded to the satisfaction of the clients and the other artisans? That was up for endless debate around the shop. The careful examination of each gilded surface brought all of us closer to a mastery of our own individual style and forced us towards the kind of technical perfection that you cannot possibly find in a corporate cubicle. There is no way to diffuse the blame to a vague “other” when you are looking at a mislaid leaf of 22k gold.
My sister sent me a copy of Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford for my birthday and I am eternally grateful for the gift and the wisdom contained within. I am particularly enthralled with it right now because it is providing me with an articulate framework of concepts that I have struggled to join together since rejecting the cubicle and beginning this latest phase of my career. This book could be a crucial bolus of information for anyone who makes a living using their hands, no matter where they are on the learning curve. Skilled labor is becoming increasingly rare in our culture. It will never become obsolete, however. My new job is in the fabrication of prosthetic limbs and custom orthotics. A job where the tasks are usually 100% clear, and the metrics are solid and understandable: what did you build today? Was it done correctly? Taking on a task that requires skilled labor involves patience, dedication, planning, and steadfastness. It simultaneously requires improvisation, flexibility, problem solving and a good deal of risk-taking. It exposes one to the vagaries of the market and the occasional dangers of the feast-or-famine cycle, but it keeps you active and on your toes. This book has been instrumental in helping me to understand the many ways in which I am proud to talk about my work nowadays.