Day: June 8, 2009

failure and responsibility

In the boardrooms on Wall Street and the corridors of Pennsylvania Avenue, I don’t think you’ll see a yellow sign that says “Think Safety!” as you do on job sites and in many repair shops, no doubt because those who sit on the swivel chairs tend to live remote from the consequences of the decisions they make.

Matthew B. Crawford in the New York Times  24/05/2009 (via precious things).

Crawford’s article is a fascinating reflection on the moral advantages of working with your hands. It resonated with me. I understand the complexity, intellectual rigour and technical skills required to make something. My preferred ‘manual’ skill is cooking while Crawford’s is mechanics, but what he says applies equally. Also, having read his article, I don’t really think I should call it a manual skill — it’s a skill of the head and heart as well as the hands.


While I’m sure there are exceptions at both ends of the spectrum, his argument is that working with your hands allows you to be honest in a way that working in the “knowledge industries” often denies you. It sounds a bit romantic, and perhaps it is, but I found his final and most fleeting point (quoted above) the most powerful.

He argues that the separation of “knowledge workers” from their clients distances them so much from the consequences of failure that the burden of responsibility is too lightly carried. When you stuff up someone’s prized motorbike — or cook a dud meal on beach mission and people go to bed hungry — you understand the impact of your work on real people in a way that is totally absent from writing a journal article or sending a report to a government department. It’s an interesting point and one I’ll keep thinking about.