. . . and the Art of Motorcycle Mechanics


Every so often, I read something that reminds me that I can’t quite shake off my academic leanings when I write. Today I ran across just such an article in the NYTimes Sunday Magazine section. In many fewer and more evocative words, "The Case for Working With Your Hands," by Matthew B. Crawford captures much of the concept of Being that I was painfully able to write about. Crawford turned his back on a hard-earned Ph. D. to become a motorcycle mechanic and in doing so found a deep satisfaction that was missing from his short career in the “information/knowledge” industry. Shades of Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Mechanics. Crawford has many traits similar to Pirsig's "Narrator."

Another important theme in the article is what learning and understanding are all about. Echoing the line from my book that learning is doing and doing is learned that I gleaned from the work of Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana, he contrasts the reality of what he learned from his practice with what he had learned in “school.” I strongly encourage anyone interested in understanding more about flourishing to read the whole article.

Almost every paragraph in the article has something to remember. I have selected a few to give you a taste.

Put differently, mechanical work has required me to cultivate different intellectual habits. Further, habits of mind have an ethical dimension that we don’t often think about. Good diagnosis requires attentiveness to the machine, almost a conversation with it, rather than assertiveness, as in the position papers produced on K Street. Cognitive psychologists speak of “metacognition,” which is the activity of stepping back and thinking about your own thinking. It is what you do when you stop for a moment in your pursuit of a solution, and wonder whether your understanding of the problem is adequate. The slap of worn-out pistons hitting their cylinders can sound a lot like loose valve tappets, so to be a good mechanic you have to be constantly open to the possibility that you may be mistaken. This is a virtue that is at once cognitive and moral. It seems to develop because the mechanic, if he is the sort who goes on to become good at it, internalizes the healthy functioning of the motorcycle as an object of passionate concern. How else can you explain the elation he gets when he identifies the root cause of some problem?

I once accidentally dropped a feeler gauge down into the crankcase of a Kawasaki Ninja that was practically brand new, while performing its first scheduled valve adjustment. I escaped a complete tear-down of the motor only through an operation that involved the use of a stethoscope, another pair of trusted hands and the sort of concentration we associate with a bomb squad. When finally I laid my fingers on that feeler gauge, I felt as if I had cheated death. I don’t remember ever feeling so alive as in the hours that followed.

Moments of elation are counterbalanced with failures, and these, too, are vivid, taking place right before your eyes. With stakes that are often high and immediate, the manual trades elicit heedful absorption in work. They are punctuated by moments of pleasure that take place against a darker backdrop: a keen awareness of catastrophe as an always-present possibility. The core experience is one of individual responsibility, supported by face-to-face interactions between tradesman and customer.

The lesson for me is that Crawford sees his job as a set of relationships--with the machine itself, with the customer, and with other mechanics. And it is out of those relationships and experience that he has learned whatever it is that makes his work successful and spill over to the rest of his life. He says, “What you need now is the kind of judgment that arises only from experience; hunches rather than rules. For me, at least, there is more real thinking going on in the bike shop than there was in the think tank.”

The words, “ethical” and “responsible” punctuate much of the article. Calling it the Tao of Sustainability in my book, I collapsed the strategy for creating sustainability into three domains: recovering our sense of what it is to be human, our sense of ethical behavior (responsibility), and our sense of our place in nature. Crawford has found an intriguing way to address the first two of these domains in his work. Although he does not address the third explicitly, he alludes to it in this short passage.

One shop teacher suggested to me that “in schools, we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement. Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.”

His story brings to mind my own experience working with a group of companies that had formed a Sustainability consortium under the egis of the Society for Organizational Learning. Two of the firms were Nike and Harley Davidson. Conventional wisdom might suggest that Nike would score higher on some sustainability scale. But on the scale of flourishing, I rate Harley as the higher. Motorcycles provide their riders a more authentic experience, albeit a noisier one, than does a pair of pricey Nike Air Yeezy sneakers. The Harley participants, arriving in their jeans and leather jackets, were easily as much concerned with sustainability as those coming from Nike.

It took me at least 10 chapters of my book to tell my story about Being, aliveness, responsibility, ethics, learning, understanding, authenticity, flourishing, relationships, community, caring, and more. Crawford does it very neatly in just over four pages. As I said above, you should read the whole article. But not as an excuse for not buying and reading my book.