The Hidden Gifts of Trade Professions

March 7, 2021

Sanding is the worst part of any carpentry job.

First, there is the dust, so fine that it resembles flour. A thin layer hides in your scalp, ears, nose, and clothing for days after any sanding job. Your nasal passages get clogged and your skin dry. Then, there is the time. You spend hours sanding away, smoothing out the last coat of sealant, only to cover your work with another layer of sealant before starting the sanding process again. You do this at least four times with gradually finer sanding paper before you are done. Finally, there is finger bruising. If your shape is slightly different from a rectangle (which most shapes are) you must use the edges of your fingers to get the sanding paper into the smallest openings. After an hour of doing this, there isn’t much finger left.

I learned that sanding is the worst part of any carpentry job by being a hobby woodworker. I do projects for myself (like the dog bed below) when other commitments allow.

Through this hobby work, and through my professional job working with a general contractor, I have come to admire and value trade skills. In my experience, trade skills teach you how to become a lifelong learner, how to produce something valuable, and finally how to experience flow in your professional life.

I call these the hidden gifts of trade professions as they have been unexpected yet perspective-altering discoveries of my work in the trades. This piece is my attempt at explaining why that is the case...

1. There are no shortcuts for blacksmiths.

Imagine I told you that you needed to make a Chef’s knife by Friday. Think about it for a couple of seconds. What would you do? Do you even know where to buy high carbon steel?

My guess is that you have no clue. In fact, most people would not know where to start despite already owning many metal objects. Their first thought is probably of a Hollywood blacksmith like Gendry from Game of Thrones. However, after some thinking, you would likely realize that the tools to learn are out there and you would find a YouTube tutorial or a local community college.

Alec Steele does one of these YouTube tutorials for a Damascus steel Chef’s Knife. It is 99 minutes of magical blacksmithing from the 20-year-old prodigy. This tutorial (or others online) would teach you which materials to buy, the equipment you would need, the general chemical reactions required, and the step-by-step process.

What none of these tutorials would replace, though, is you actually doing it. You would need to go through the motions of hammering down the perfect shape, of carefully sharpening the blade with a belt sander, of wood-cutting the handle, of fixing your mistakes, among others. These things can´t be done on YouTube.

Learning by doing is the building block of education and in the trades, it is the default. Car mechanics face new reasons for cars that don’t run after 15 years on the job. Tradesmen are always wiring a new electrical system, installing a new appliance in a different home, or building something new. After many years trade professionals acquire skills, not out-of-the-box solutions, encouraging creativity and problem solving every time you encounter a new situation.

Compare that to a corporate lawyer drafting incorporation documents, copy-pasting most of the content from the same template they use in every other incorporation process. In many ways, they are very similar to factory workers.

2. People pay you for your work, not your credentials

In Matthew B. Crawford’s essay Shop Class as Soulcraft - The case for the manual trades, he reflects on his time as an electrician helper at age fourteen. He says:

" the end of a job, when I would flip the switch. “And there was light.” It was an experience of agency and competence. The effects of my work were visible for all to see, so my competence was real for others as well; it had a social currency.”

Michael learned early on that his work could impact reality. He could be proud of his manual competence because the outcome of his work stood for itself. There was no room for interpretation, and no A+ for effort: The lights either turned on, or they didn’t. That is an important lesson at such a young age. Many adults, even after expensive college degrees, never learn to do something others want, or they can be proud of. This problem is illustrated by the fact that the motto for the most elite tech accelerator in the world is “make something people want”. Trade professions offer a glimpse of this concept very early on in the process.

The outcomes in most trade professions are binary. You can point to the working car, the finished furniture piece, or the functioning appliance. There is some value attached to that in a way that is tangible and obvious to yourself and others, regardless of background. No degree is needed to justify the value of restoring a home’s electricity; no student loans and no years of college stand between the aspiring mechanic and the ability to fix a broken car.

These skills, once learned, also tend to pay themselves off many times in your lifetime. Long gone are the days where you need to drop $300 for an air filter change or thousands of dollars for someone else to manage your home construction project. If you learn to create something that you get paid for you can now do this same job for yourself, for life.

3. Craftmanship nourishes the soul

If you’ve ever been so immersed in a task that you lost track of time, you’ve experienced a state of flow – and you’d probably like to return that state more often.

Flow, a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and defined as “a state of optimal experience arising from intense involvement in an activity,” has been linked to feelings of mindfulness and meaning. Most guides for how to achieve a flow state boil down to three pieces of advice: (1) remove distractions, (2) have a clear goal with feedback along the way, and (3) pick a challenge that is commensurate with your skills.

The environment of many trade professions meets the preconditions necessary for flow states to flourish. First, there is the physical elimination of most distractions like social media or workplace gossip, since you can’t afford distraction when you are up on a 12-foot ladder. Second, there is a clear goal. Most trade jobs have binary outcomes so “making a functional chair” is a clear goal to work towards, and clear feedback comes from the piece taking shape before your eyes. Finally, there exists a relationship between the challenge and your skills. You are taking jobs that you believe that you can accomplish because you have trained to perform them.

Being able to experience flow is one of the hidden gifts of many trade professions. It is the very structure of tradecraft that gives access to this highly sought-after mental state.

The mental benefits of trade professions don’t end with flow states. Trade professions often provide a sense of satisfaction and meaning that lasts a long time. This satisfaction comes from seeing yourself and others use a product you have built. Living in a self-made home provides a sense of accomplishment for years to come in a way that ticking off a “to-do” item doesn´t. The time and effort you invested in the details are a source of pride and accomplishment. You gain an understanding of excellence by looking at your own shortcomings in the project. This relationship between constant learning and a tangible outcome is a deep source of well-being.