Tag Archives: books

The Case for Working with Your Hands

“We in the West have arranged our institutions to prevent the concentration of political power, with such devices as the separation of legislative, executive, and judicial functions. But we have failed utterly to prevent the concentration of economic power, or take account of how such concentration damages the conditions under which full human flourishing becomes possible (it is never guaranteed).”


That is Matthew Crawford’s concise, and devastatingly accurate conclusion. There’s more in his final chapter, but these few lines are the inevitable climax of his warm and cleverly argued book “The Case for Working with Your Hands”, published in the USA as “Shop Class As Soulcraft”.

Crawford’s book ranges from childhood memories, motorcycle repair to philosophy. In retelling his own unconventional career, Crawford examines what Taylorism and now the ‘knowledge economy’ have done to working people.

He draws interesting comparisons between managers lost in a world of unmeasurable, soft tasks and tradesmen who can clearly see when their work is ‘good’ and when repairs actually fix something. Out of necessity generalisations must be used, but certainly there is some large kernels of truth in Crawford’s reflections.

When someone feels in command of their trade, there is an inherent satisfaction in their work being completed: The motorbike is fixed, the lights are working in the room that has been wired. Or, as I saw in Berlin last week where bartenders took great pride in their work, the drink has been served correctly.

Throughout my working life I have felt a deep sense of unease about corporate life. From my earliest work experience in the banks of the City of London there has been a sense that office work could be somehow dehumanising. This is not to point the finger at any specific employer, or colleagues, because most were undoubtedly kind. But there is a systemic issue in how the layers of corporate power affect the average office worker. Matthew Crawford addresses much of this modern issue.

It’s notable to me that in Brighton & Hove City Council there’s a different feel. Despite being a large organisation with thousands of staff, I think the common theme of public service motivates us all. So while Matthew Crawford’s arguments feel valid in general, a sense of mission can perhaps trump them.

Seth Godin’s “Linchpin” – go read it!

I’ve read it twice to make sure. There’s no doubt in my mind that Seth Godin’s “Linchpin” is a powerful and important book for anyone in the world of work. In fact anyone who wants to contribute in any way – whether entrepreneur, employee or volunteer.

A key theme in the book is fear (aka ‘the resistance’) and how it holds people back from doing what they know they are capable of achieving. This is a topic many motivational speakers and writers touch on. I had forgotten this until yesterday when attending a little send-off do for Keith Taylor who has just stepped down from being a councillor (after 11 years!) to become an MEP.

Without any thought I had worn a t-shirt I’d received a few years back when attending Anthony Robbins’Unleash the power within” event. I’d been given the ticket as a gift, and had gone deeply skeptical, but ended up totally into it. The t-shirt simply reads:

Anthony Robbins

the firewalk experience

fear into power

And so a few people had asked me if I’d seen or done the firewalk. Yes, I’d done the firewalk, I replied without any thought (because I had done it) and they all became very curious and interested about the details of how it’s achieved. I talked about the focus and preparation needed.

As I cycled home I realised that this was a reflection of the power of fear. I had overcome fear (and deep skepticism) to do the firewalk a few years ago and reflecting on it, I did still feel empowered by that memory. If I can do that, surely my goals are all worth a try!

Godin cleverly reminds us all of such moments in his book. He says we have all been geniuses at some point in our lives – we’ve solved a problem, got ourselves out of a fix, improvised, entertained and surprised ourselves. This, he argues, is what we need to enable ourselves to do more often. Rather than assuming one is either ‘a genius’ or just an ‘ordinary person’, we need to aspire to more moments of genius. This is a useful change in perspective when most of us just don’t feel like a genius, that’s a label for ‘special people’, which is a self-defeating narrative for the 99.99% of people not publicly declared a genius.

Godin’s book has also had me reflecting on my on aborted doctorate. I spent five years diving in and out of it, under intense psychological pressure (of my own making) to finish the darn thing. I’ve realised that the reason I was unable to stop sooner was my concern about other people’s views. In particularl my supervisor, and doctoral classmates. We had been in this together and they had given time to this endeavour too. I knew I could do the PhD, I just didn’t want to.

That might sound odd, but I realised that neither the process nor the result of doing the doctorate held any interest for me any longer, though I could quite clearly see what I had to do to complete them. Very clearly in fact, as my wife was nearing the end of her ten year doctoral voyage.

So a fear, of other people’s opinions, was holding me back from doing the right thing. I overcame it and felt marvellously liberated by withdrawing from the doctoral programme. Instead I was able to focus my energies on politics, where time and passion are now being poured!

I can’t recommend “Linchpin” strongly enough. The book, especially the sections on education and management, tie in strongly with Sir Ken Robinson and Tom Chapell’s themes which I recently blogged.

UPDATE: Seth Godin has, for the sheer hell of it, announced a ‘Linchpin Day’ so I’ve set up a meetup in Brighton & Hove for 7.30pm on June 14th, join us!

Note: All Amazon links for books will pay a commission to me if you purchase the book.

The Element – On education and creativity, plus my books of 2009

Academic inflation continues ever apace, it is now the case that a PhD isn’t enough for some posts. My father worked over 30 years for a bank. He entered with nothing more than A-levels. Since then the job, which has little changed in substance, now requires one or more degrees, probably an MBA would help too.

Meanwhile the British government continues its process of expanding the length of compulsory education. It is bringing forward the school starting age from 5 to 4 years young. Furthermore it is extending the education and training age to 18, up from 16 years. So in total they are potentially adding 3 years to the length of compulsory education.

For all those children who hated school, felt constrained and misunderstood, this is a disaster. We already start school earlier than most European countries, and don’t have better results to show for this early start. As Sir Ken Robinson has so ably shown – there is a huge list of very successful people who only blossomed after school’s negative effects had had a chance to wear off.

Truancy is at record levels too — no wonder what with more testing, a more restrictive curriculum, and the failure to nurture diverse types of intelligence. We are killing creativity and extinguishing passions with an incessant focus just on ‘academic’ education; that is maths, literacy, and sciences.

You can’t learn many of the most valuable things in life simply by being told them and then reciting them for a test. Education should be a much richer experience. We have absolutely no idea what life will bring for our children. We cannot possibly imagine what the world will be like by the time they leave education, especially considering the current failures to tackle climate change.

I was extremely fortunate to recently visit what I think is an excellent example of following your passion, caring for the environment and the unexpected connections education can bring. During a North American family reunion I visited Tom’s of Maine in Kennebunk, Maine, USA. Tom’s produce natural personal care products such as toothpaste, dental floss and soap. The company works towards an ethical mission which includes donating a proportion of revenue to charities and treating their employees with care and respect.

When visiting their factory I was impressed with the breaks staff took for exercises, the way disabled staff were supported in being productive team-members and the care taken in reducing the environmental impact of their operations. While there I also picked up the two books written by Tom Chappell, which I found to be fascinating, inspiring reads.

In particular the books tell of how Tom (who co-founded the firm with his wife Kate) started to lose his passion for the business as the focus became ever more on ‘making the numbers’. Rather than quitting by selling the business, Tom decided to take up a part-time theology course at Harvard. This rather unexpected change in direction for a former insurance salesman led to a renewal in his passion for his business. He engaged on an ethical, environmental and creative level resulting in a wide set of changes in how they did business and a massive increase in the number of new product ideas. Creativity was unleashed.

How many people would have advised Tom to go on a part-time theology course to resolve his business problems or loss of passion? Not many I would imagine. He writes that many of his colleagues had their doubts, and I’m not surprised. But by connecting with an alternative way of thinking and different people a new passion was found. I think we’re all better off for the work Tom’s has been doing since then. It’s not to say we’ll all renew our passion by going on a theology course, but to say that creativity and passion are not science, they lie in unexpected connections.

I’ve been searching for my passion, slowly homing in on what it means for me to be in my element. Through school I focussed on good grades and subjects that would have the most use for employment. To some extent I regret that now.

Some of the choices I had to make were ludicrous. For example for my A-levels I wanted to do Physics, English Language and Biology. I was told only English Literature was available and I couldn’t do it anyway as it wasn’t possible to combine it with science subjects. So at 16 I had to choose between science or ‘arts’ not just for A-levels but for my university career also. I ended up doing Maths, Physics and Chemistry with A/S French for Professional Use. I had hated maths since age 10 and didn’t feel strongly about chemistry one way or the other. Physics I did enjoy, but partly because I had yet to reach the maths-intensive levels.

How utterly mad to force a 16-year old to make such choices. It’s difficult enough in one’s thirties making career choices, let alone when one is still very much a personality in development. I know my old school has now gone for the International Baccalaureate to try and broaden pre-university education.

IB is probably an improvement but lacks the opportunity for subjects such as dance, music or sculpture to fully integrate into schooling so that pupils of all abilities and passions can be catered for. We need to completely turn our educational system upside down. Helping people to find and nurture their passion is quite possibly the most important thing we can do for one another as a society.

Reads of 2009

I’ve read many excellent books this year, in fact barely any have been duds. Ones that spring to mind include Tristram Stuart’s “Waste” and Prashant Vaze’s “The Economical Environmentalist”.

Only two books this year have fundamentally altered my way of thinking, challenged me in the most positive ways, and been deeply impressive.

These were Sir Ken Robinson’s “The Element” and Tom Chappell’s “The Soul of a Business”. If you read just two books in 2010, make it those. To expand and support them two other books are worth a look, Sir Ken’s “Out of our Minds” and Tom’s “Managing Upside Down”. They aren’t quite as good or punchy as the first two, but they usefully expand the ideas and context.

More Resources:

I first came across Sir Ken through his incredible, must see, TED talk (via Garr Reynold’s great blog Presentation Zen)

If you are looking for your passion, Po Bronson’s “What Should I Do with My Life?” is another useful, non-prescriptive, book.

Note: All Amazon links for books will pay a commission to me if you purchase the book.