Whether you work with your hands or your brain, you should be honored

“The society that scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.” – John W. Gardner

When I was a boy, I had an uncle who encouraged me to get a college education. “That way, you’ll be able to make a living with your brain and not your hands,” he always said.

The implication was that it was somehow better to work with your brain and not as good to work with your hands. It took me decades to understand just how misguided and harmful that notion could be.

If work is being done, it’s being done because it matters. And if it matters, it should be done well, and it should be honored for the contribution it makes.

John Gardner’s quote reminds us that all legitimate work should be honored. We make a mistake when we fail to see the worth of laborers – both skilled and unskilled – who build the world we inhabit.

At times I think America has fallen so far into the trap of discounting physical labor that we’ve jeopardized our future. We’ve encouraged our children to be doctors, lawyers, IT professionals, marketers, financiers and all manner of other professionals. We’ve made them believe that labor is not honorable. Meantime, we’ve sent our manufacturing overseas, and we may not have the skills we need to rebuild our failing infrastructure.

To be sure, manufacturing moved largely to hire less-expensive labor, but it also often moved because U.S. factories weren’t delivering the same quality as their overseas counterparts. That could be, in part, because we all started to believe that the work being done in factories just wasn’t as important as work being done in offices.

Today, we have both factories and office buildings being shuttered. Maybe, if we can bridge the gap between the two, and focus on honoring work of all kinds, and not always worry so much about what the work pays, we can turn this situation around. If we don’t, we will not be able to compete, and we’ll continue to watch our standard of living deteriorate.

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