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.



  1. Glad to know you’ve found, and been enjoying, that essay. It made a considered argument that you don’t often hear; I thought it was important that the effort and the benefits he was talking about were intellectual as well as moral. The latter argument in isolation can be cheap, or mere class-baiting, and I thought he avoided that very well. Might even change some people’s minds …

  2. Alain de Botton makes a similar point in ‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work’. He wonders if one of the reasons work is so unfulfilling for a lot of people is that they can’t actually see the benefits of it. If you repair the forklifts at a biscuit factory, you might get some satisfaction from having a working forklift, but you’re a long way from the consumers whose days are brightened as they enjoy the biscuits.

  3. Thanks for your comments.

    Bruce – did you know the essay has just been released as a book? Shop class as soulcraft – I’m keen to get my hands on a copy.

    Stuart – thanks for the tip! I’ll chase down de Botton and have a read.

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