Review: The Wisdom of Our Hands

I picked up this book (subtitled “Crafting, a Life”) as a follow-on to Shop Class as Soulcraft, which I loved.

Doug Stowe is a wood-worker (shop class is about motorcycles), craftsman and teacher, and I — as an amateur wood worker — was happy to learn some lessons on wood, but also craft and life.

I made some notes while reading:

  • Your hands and brain cooperate when working (or speaking, if you’re Italian :), so lean into that fact.
  • Humility is a necessary when doing crafts — and living life. With humility, you can learn and you will want to meet strangers, to get their help.
  • If you always make “the same thing” different, then you let yourself develop and evolve. That’s true for Stowe’s wooden boxes, but also for telling stories, making bread, or riding a bike.
  • Be patient and plan ahead with solid (vs manufactured) woods.
  • Don’t compete with machined perfection; highlight wood’s imperfections.
  • Here’s an interesting article on Handmade landscapes in China.
  • “Nature deficit disorder” strikes those who stay in artificial environments.
  • Every tool takes time to learn; mastery means it’s an extension of your hand.
  • Tacit knowledge is, by definition, impossible to “pass on” — it’s only gained by first-hand experience.*
  • Materials and tools are easy to get; technique takes time and effort.
  • Craftspeople can work in two modes: certainty or risk. Risk is when you try anything new; certainty comes from repetition.
  • Attention over haste, lest you “hurry up so there’s time to fix mistakes.”
  • As you gain experience, you learn which steps can be dropped on the way to the same results. I always like the idea that lazy people are clever workers, as they are always looking for shortcuts. This method can backfire of course 🙂
  • “See one, do one, teach one.”
  • Kenntnis (German) means learning by doing (first hand).
  • People are more satisfied with rewards earned through work. Rats too.
  • Academics probably underestimate the value of learning with your hands, which means that they may not be helping students learn very well.
  • Here’s an article [pdf] that Stowe wrote for teachers
  • As products/services get more “user friendly,” they are harder to learn or understand, which can leave users helpless. (Compare a paper map to a digital guide.)
  • All of us, young and old, benefit from having unstructured “potential spaces” that let us explore and try new things/ideas.
  • Confidence (and humility) comes with success, failure and overcoming failure. Don’t try to short-circuit that process.
  • The Swedes did not have problems with depression (seasonal affective disorder) in the centuries when they worked on crafts over the winter. Industrialization took away that “time waste” and left them with nothing to  do, which led to depression.
  • “Poverty is your greatest treasure” — an easy life corrodes your sense of worth and mission. (This is not a call for throwing people on the street, but a warning that a common goal — wealth for example — may not be that valuable.
  • A new start can lead to fast results when you’ve already practiced the wrong way of doing something 🙂
  • Mistakes? No… those are design opportunities!
  • A world of cheap, anonymous stuff is not as nice as one with crafts made by people you know.

I recommend this book to teachers and craftspeople, and wanna-be-craftspeople, since we all can use a little more wisdom and we all have the hands to make that possible! FIVE STARS.

*In my recent paper on teaching water economics, I wrote: I am using “first hand” in the sense of touching or doing something directly (e.g., irrigating a field). Second-hand learning comes from watching someone irrigate a field. One learns third hand by reading a farmer’s irrigation journal. Fourth-hand learning occurs when reading a text book author’s description of how farmers irrigate.

Here are all my reviews.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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