Soul Craft

June 2011


Matthew Crawford’s book, Shop Class As Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work recounts Crawford’s journey from a six-figure job at a Washington think-tank to a motorcycle mechanic. Crawford’s work in the think-tank was empty, disconnected, and impossible to describe in an elevator speech. Crawford decided he didn’t want to just clock time for a paycheck, so chose to do physical work with a clear direction for an even exchange of payment. Crawford wanted to be paid for his work rather than his time. Time tends to lose its limitations when one adopts this attitude. In his book, Crawford describes a few motorcycle repair jobs that took untold hours of his time, but his determination to get the job done right superceded the clock’s power. His customers paid for a reasonable amount for Crawford’s time rather than the actual hours that he used.


The value of work reveals its true essence when one stops counting the hours. The human mind needs unstructured time to think, explore, plan, and create. No-one creates a masterpiece under pressure. Crawford also reminds us that humans think with their hands. We need to touch, experiment, try, and then try again in order to figure things out. We can’t solve a physical problem just by thinking about it.


Much of the corporate world operates on the opposite premise. Knowledge workers sit in cubicles completely disconnected from customers and decide what the customers want. Products are created and discontinued based on ideas passed around a conference table.


Today, Crawford beams while sharing his brief and perfectly to-the-point elevator speech: “I fix motorcycles.” He also wrote numerous articles and a book, gives public appearances, and is a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia; but I’m sure these are secondary to his true calling of fixing broken motorcycles.


When we can let go of the “time is money” adage and enjoy work for its own sake instead of its exchange for money, magical things happen. A few years ago, a small wooden table, painted black, was sitting by the curb of a friend’s house, waiting to be hauled away with the trash. I mentioned to my fiend that it would be a great table to refinish and promptly placed it in the back of my car. My friend smiled and said one of her other friends said the same thing, but then also said it wouldn’t be worth the time. I not only enjoyed the beautiful table after I completed the refinishing, but enjoyed the refinishing work itself.


Time should not limit our work or our enjoyment but rather be open space for us to fill with creativity and joy.