One way to deal with the vagaries of office work is to not deal with the vagaries of office work.
In The Case for Working With Your Hands, Matthew Crawford contrasts his work as a motorcycle mechanic with inane desk work. More generally, he talks about the differences between “real” work (like construction trades) and the “knowledge work” that anchors so many of us to our desks.
After a long section on the challenges and rewards of being an independent trades worker, Crawford offers this look at one of the hallmark office rat roles, the middle manager:
Contrast the experience of being a middle manager. This is a stock figure of ridicule, but the sociologist Robert Jackall spent years inhabiting the world of corporate managers, conducting interviews, and he poignantly describes the “moral maze” they feel trapped in. Like the mechanic, the manager faces the possibility of disaster at any time. But in his case these disasters feel arbitrary; they are typically a result of corporate restructurings, not of physics. A manager has to make many decisions for which he is accountable. Unlike an entrepreneur with his own business, however, his decisions can be reversed at any time by someone higher up the food chain (and there is always someone higher up the food chain). It’s important for your career that these reversals not look like defeats, and more generally you have to spend a lot of time managing what others think of you. Survival depends on a crucial insight: you can’t back down from an argument that you initially made in straightforward language, with moral conviction, without seeming to lose your integrity. So managers learn the art of provisional thinking and feeling, expressed in corporate doublespeak, and cultivate a lack of commitment to their own actions. Nothing is set in concrete the way it is when you are, for example, pouring concrete.
This was a good reminder for me that, even with all of its challenges, I sure do appreciate my independent career as a massage therapist. I never could muster the “provisional thinking” necessary to advance in the corporate world, and I came to resent all of the time I spent managing perceptions. Unfortunately, I had bought into the hype about the supremacy of knowledge work over manual labor (and I genuinely enjoyed the publishing work I was doing), so I kept myself glued to a desk longer than a more insightful Larry would have.
While I enjoy my massage career and am grateful to be up and moving for most of the day doing work that people genuinely appreciate, I still dream of doing work that is even more physical and outdoorsy – becoming a stone mason or a garbage man or a park ranger or something similar (the outdoorsy angle looms large on a sunny Seattle day like this when I am fully booked until 7:00 p.m. – Vitamin D, wherefore art thou?).
Crawford points out that the current economic climate has highlighted the benefits of a trades career and concludes with this:
For anyone who feels ill suited by disposition to spend his days sitting in an office, the question of what a good job looks like is now wide open.
The escape hatch is there. Is there a trade you’d like to practice?
About the Author
Larry Swanson is a massage therapist in downtown Seattle, WA. His practices focuses on the unique needs of office workers and also includes injury treatment for sports and car-accident injuries as well as massage for wellness and athletic performance.