Following the Music: A Reskilling Journey
I wrote about my group (Ealing Transition)’s reskilling day back in October, so I thought I might look at reskilling from a different angle for this article.
About three years ago, around the time I finally got my hands on an allotment, my friend Dave gave up his job as a manager in an engineering company to learn how to build guitars. Not a mid-life crisis, exactly, but certainly a decision to change direction and do something he loved.
It has been fascinating to follow his journey through the learning process. Guitar builders learn everything the hard way, making their first instrument with hand tools, before being allowed to use the time-saving machine tools on their second. This gives them a better sense of the materials and processes involved, and also helps them to develop a ‘feel’ for their craft.
Dave always had his engineering to fall back on, but with his training complete he decided there was no going back. If you look at the number of hours that go into a guitar, the hourly rate is probably lower than the minimum wage, but that’s not the point. He was a craftsman now.
About this time something rather magical happened. He had been looking for a place to set up a workshop, borrowing space from friends and fellow guitar builders. Then someone mentioned a local initiative on an island on the Thames in Brentford. An abandoned boatyard was being brought back into use as a hub for local craftsfolk. He found himself among boat builders and furniture makers; there was even someone building a plane. There is a romance about the island: it is removed from everyday concerns, and you can only get there on foot (or by boat!).
The transformation in Dave is extraordinary. You can see his mind buzzing with technical challenges, whether in terms of what woods to select, how to set up his workshop, or how to start marketing his business. Nowadays he goes to work because he wants to, not because he has to.
As I have developed my growing skills, our conversations have evolved from a shared love of music to finding a common language to describe the tactile pleasures of wood, the finer aspects of tool use, the effects of the weather, and the satisfaction of doing something that is both creative and productive. There have been serendipitous parallels between our two projects, for example I built a shed about the time Dave built his workshop, and we helped each other work out technical challenges as we went. We have both found that after nearly forty years behind desks using our brains (if you count school, college, and work) we are at our happiest simply making and growing things.
Why is this? Cognitive scientists now believe that the human brain co-evolved with our hands.* Which is to say that as we developed the ability to manipulate things into ever more complex forms, our brains grew correspondingly. The separation of manual and mental work is a relatively recent phenomenon. By contrast the modern world has sold us ‘labour saving’ devices and ‘convenience’ – but in so doing deskilled us and made us reliant on ‘experts’ outside of the home. If this weekend’s papers are to be believed, a third of adults are now incapable of finding a place without a sat nav.
Humboldt** wrote that free choice was manifested by people ‘who love their labour for its own sake, improve it by their own plastic genius and inventive skill, and thereby cultivate their intellect, ennoble their character, and exalt and refine their pleasures’. The labourer who tends the garden, he says, is more its owner than the ‘listless voluptuary’ who enjoys its fruits. This I think gets to the heart of the issue: what I feel sometimes when I’m down at my allotment, and what I see in Dave is that reskilling is not just about making ourselves more resilient, not just about getting satisfaction from our work, though this would be reward enough. I think it goes deeper than that. I think acquiring a skill makes you free.
* Matthew Crawford: The Case for Working with your Hands
** Extract from The Limits of State Action by Wilhelm von Humboldt (1792)
If you are interested, you can ‘like’ The Boatyard Guitar Workshop on Facebook