My brother and I have a vacation house in upstate New York, a quiet retreat in a small Southern Tier town where we gather with family and/or friends a few times a year to escape from our daily routines. The house is an on-going project for me, and I’ve built/installed (among other things) a couple decks, a fire pit, firewood sheds, a storage bin, some decorative shelving, a couple bathroom remodels, a new kitchen, a hardwood floor, and most recently, a large utility shed.

I occasionally solicit help from my brother and/or friends when a second set of hands is available or necessary, but I usually work alone. The work is enough to engage my mind, but it also lets my thoughts wander about and ideas percolate. It’s its own form of meditation, it offers comfort, and it sometimes leads to understanding and enlightenment regarding matters I’ve got on the mind at a given time.

I find similar benefit from this sort of mental engagement as I do simpler tasks. Mowing the lawn, cooking a meal, or a weight session at the gym can produce the same sort of effect, as can many other manual tasks.

There is one other source of benefit and happiness in building something: the end result. While cutting the grass produces a pleasing outcome (a well manicured lawn is satisfying, at least to me), a tangible, quasi-permanent product confers, at least in my personal experience, a greater level of satisfaction and joy.

The 1979 movie Breaking Away told the tale of Dave, just entering adulthood who, with the help of some friends and despite the challenges of growing up working class in a college town, pursued his cycling passion. As so often happens with me, one “throwaway” scene stuck and resonated.

The local kids were nicknamed “cutters” by the college crowd. The nickname referred to the town’s old stone-cutting industry, and was meant to be derogatory. One scene showed Dave walking around the college campus with his father, who had retired out of that work. Dad informed Dave that Dave was not a cutter. Dad was the cutter, and he took pride in his work on all the majestic stone buildings on that campus.

America is suffering from a dearth of skilled trades workers, a dearth that many (including the MikeRoweWorks foundation) are trying to reverse. This paucity is, at least in part, the result of the “everyone should go to college” message that has been prevalent in society for decades, a message that isn’t holding up to scrutiny. While, on average, lifetime earnings are higher for the college-degreed, that average is skewed by the high earners in STEM and professional fields (medicine, law, etc), and there are many who go to college who’d be better off learning a trade instead of assuming six-figure debt to get a degree that doesn’t have an obvious, high-earning career path (some schools/degrees have substantially negative 20 year returns vs a basic high school diploma). Plus, it’s without a doubt that some people simply will not benefit from going to college. And, that’s before we consider the market skewing effects: push more into college, and by extension fewer to the trades, and you have a glut of college grads, a shortage of trades people, and shifts in wages/salaries in response.

America also seems to be suffering from a collective unhappiness, and I believe that our increasing disconnect from manual skills is a significant contributor. While the bumbling, skill-less, father/husband/boyfriend has become a grossly overused trope in entertainment and advertising, that joke speaks to the truth that lacking in manual skills contributes to lower self-esteem, lower self-worth, and increased fear. One commercial mocks a teenager who got a flat tire one night, calls home for help, and depicts his ignorance as to what a lug wrench is. This may sell insurance, but it’s an inexcusable lack of basic manual skills as well as a depiction of the resultant helplessness.

How did we get to this point? It’s not just the “go to college” social message, it’s the devaluation of manual training in primary and secondary education. From sixth through twelfth grade, I attended a school that had a wood shop, and shop class was part of our curriculum in sixth and seventh grades, at a minimum. That shop program shut down when the shop teacher retired, and the space was converted into an arts and crafts studio. While pottery contains a manual-skill component, it does not teach the basic use of tools that becomes a “forever” foundation upon which to build. I learned the basics of carpentry in junior high, and spent the next four-plus decades building on those basics and accumulating additional skills, knowledge, and experience. I also branched into electrical, plumbing, masonry, and other home-improvement-related skills (as well as automotive matters), to the point where I am comfortable tackling substantial projects. Not everyone wants or needs to invest as deeply as I have (and I’m still learning), but society is failing our young by not inculcating a basic facility with tools, and by diminishing the value and satisfaction of manual labor.

There’s another angle at play, rooted in class-ism. There’s a significant gender gap in college, with substantially more women earning degrees than men. People tend to resist “dating down,” i.e. going out with (and being seen with) those who don’t rank as well in some metrics as themselves. Women often include educational parity in those metrics, which creates a pressure of its own, incentivizing men to pursue college instead of a trade if they want to connect with a college-educated woman.

It creates a “dating gap,” where women are less likely to find a mate they consider suitable (again, thanks in part to social signals regarding how things should be), and enabling men who are the most desirable to those women to “play” more, delay settling down, etc. This produces its own unhappiness and dissatisfaction, contributing to the sum total that currently afflicts our society.

I’ve spent decades learning carpentry and other trade skills, as a hobbyist. I know enough to know what size project I can handle, and I know enough to recognize what I don’t know. I learn something new on every major job I undertake, and more importantly, I don’t fear learning something new, or conclude that, because I’m in my 50s, my learning days are behind me. It’s unfortunate that I run into that last phenomenon all the time. Even for a matter as basic as cooking, I constantly meet people with a defeatist attitude, who not only claim they can’t do something, but assert that they are incapable of learning to do it. That’s, in my opinion, born of the abandonment of manual skills training in our educational system. Once you learn to swing a hammer and turn a screwdriver, you have the foundational elements to learn all that derives from those skills, and by extension a wide range of other skills that involve use of hands and tools. If you’re never taught how to make anything, you’ve been denied a bit of what makes us human, and you’ve had a source of pleasure, confidence, and satisfaction taken from you.

The bad news is that this has become the norm. The good news is that it’s never too late to learn (and, with the Internet, it’s easier than ever). Make something you’ve never made before, even if it’s just an omelette. Get it wrong, make a mistake? So what? You’ve learned from the mistake. Get it right? Now you’ve accomplished something (and learned in the process), and have experienced the joy of making that goes to the core of the human spirit.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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