Roots of the Big Fish approach: “Shop Class as Soulcraft”

I’ve been working on the Big Fish approach for many years. Or, to put it more accurately, I’ve been thinking about the approach for years: pondering the ideas, keeping notes, doing research, paying attention to things that seemed related to the ideas, then doing more research and scribbling down more notes, etc.

But thinking sort of is how I work.

My model for this is Sir Isaac Newton.  After he published his Principia Mathematica, which gave us the concept of universal gravitation, someone asked him how he managed to come up with such a remarkable idea. He answered, “By thinking on it continually.”

I certainly don’t think as well as Newton, nor as deeply. But I do apparently share one trait with him — I like to let ideas fester.

From time to time on this blog I’ll write about some of the books, ideas, articles and events that I consumed during the festering period that led to the Big Fish in a Small Pond approach.

And to start, I want to write a bit about “Shop Class as Soulcraft.”

If you haven’t read the book by Matthew Crawford, I would highly recommend it. In brief, it’s a a book of philosophy that is structured as a defense of manual labor. Crawford is a motorcycle mechanic. And he found value in that trade that he could not find in his previous career at a “think tank” in Washington, D.C.

I first came across Crawford’s work in an essay in 2006 that would become the basis of his book three years later.

I fell in love with his ideas instantly …. which might strike anyone who knows me as strange, given that my skills in manual labor are nearly nonexistent. But Crawford seemed to speak to a yearning I had — a yearning that millions of us in the modern world have — to avoid being caught in something too big, too unmanageable, too non-human, in our working lives.

At the end of the essay, Crawford suggests that the development of manual skills is a solution for those of us who wish to avoid being a cog in someone else’s machine.

… the physical circumstances of the jobs performed by carpenters, plumbers, and auto mechanics vary too much for them to be executed by idiots; they require circumspection and adaptability. One feels like a man, not a cog in a machine. The trades are then a natural home for anyone who would live by his own powers, free not only of deadening abstraction, but also of the insidious hopes and rising insecurities that seem to be endemic in our current economic life. This is the stoic ideal.

So what advice should one give to a young person? By all means, go to college. In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences. In the summers, learn a manual trade. You’re likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems. To heed such advice would require a certain contrarian streak, as it entails rejecting a life course mapped out by others as obligatory and inevitable.

I found those two paragraphs both inspiring and affirming. The specifics of Crawford’s solution wouldn’t work for me — I’m neither skilled in nor attracted to manual crafts. But the specifics of his complaints spoke to me.  I, too, yearned for a “natural home” in which I could live by my own powers, free of “the insidious hopes and rising insecurities that seem to be endemic in our current economic life.” I, too, was attracted to a life as “an independent,” and I, too, believed deeply in the idea of approaching education in”the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences.”

What Crawford saw as the advantages of pursing life as an independent tradesman seemed remarkably similar to the advantages I saw in pursuing life as a Big Fish in a Small Pond. At the most basic level both of us were suggesting that the wisest course of action in the modern world is to step outside the expectations of that world, and instead seek independence and expertise so that you can build a career

— by Paul Conley