On working with your hands

I grew up working in the trades. At age 14 I started working in my family’s floor maintenance/service business (I’ll never look at a tile floor like a normal person). And in my early 20’s, during university breaks, I’d occasionally help out in their newest business in the green, refinishing industry too. Since life as a consultant has its slow periods, in the past couple weeks I’ve been doing a bit of that refinishing work again with my Dad.

It’s very detailed work and quite time consuming, but once you get into the rhythm of things, it’s pretty straightforward. Last week I spent hours in my Dad’s shop cleaning and sanding down cabinet doors to be refinished. And I had SUCH a good time. Going back to this work, for the first time in a while, reminded me of two things about labour that I’d forgotten.

1.  Once you get into that rhythm of the work you’re doing with your hands, it leaves your mind blissfully free. You can reflect, taking time for introspection that is a rare commodity in our busy lives. For many of us, our attention is nearly always engaged by the analytic work we’re doing, media, digital technology or the activities and people around us. There is something so peaceful about doing something useful with your hands, but letting your brain wander and explore.
Or, if you’re obsessed with radio as I am, you can do your work while giving your mind the pleasure of engaging with an array of fascinating ideas. I listened to hours of my favourite CBC radio program, Ideas. I learned about the ancient Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius, (he explored the concept that particles invisible to the human eye might exist (atoms) centuries before it became scientific knowledge*), listened to interviews with a dozen of Canada’s poet laureate’s, and was re-introduced to the basics of Socratic philosophy.

2. It’s quite rewarding seeing something that you’ve physically worked on be transformed into something better (though I should mention that I’m hardly very good at this trade, and quite slow). Much of the work I regularly produce is written or visual, and thus rather abstract. When I do public relations or engagement work, the product is even more intangible.
There is a satisfaction that comes from physically working with objects that makes the result feel particularly hard-earned. And once you’re done, you’re done. I can always improve on something I’ve written or designed. And usually that work is part of a project that keeps on going. It’s always on your mind. In the construction trades, once you’re finished a job, you see the result, appreciate it and move on.

I love what I do, and wouldn’t change it. But it was good to be reminded of the value of physical work. And even more so, to take time away from constantly working in front of a computer. The balance of doing physical and mental work was refreshing and I’ve come back to my writing and projects feeling much more driven and creative.
There’s also something to be said for putting yourself in a situation you wouldn’t usually experience. A kind of work, you would usually take for granted. Understanding the perspective of an industry completely different than my own has proven useful more times than I can count. Whether it’s being able to carry on a conversation about construction methods or identify with someone who works labour versus white collar jobs, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is like learning a whole new language.

*(Side note: Lucretius’s work was lost to history for hundreds of years then re-discovered in the 1400’s by a book hunter – what an AWESOME job.)



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