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Posts Tagged ‘Matthew B. Crawford

Go Find Yourself

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Are you hiding in plain sight?

Are you already doing who you are?

That question barely makes sense.

Still, I like it because it combines process with self-identity and hints at motivation. To answer that question all you have to do is look at how you spend your day—and with whom—to begin to sort your priorities.

Matthew Crawford’s book The World Beyond Your Head: On becoming an individual in an age of distraction (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015) is not a quick read. But it is a satisfying text because he pulls back the draperies hiding some daily mysteries we live without thinking.

For instance, I found out I am an artist. Of sorts.

For instance, I found out I am an artist. Of sorts.

Like work.

Mr. Crawford, the philosopher/motorcycle mechanic dismantles the notion of work and rebuilds it around the cylinders of service and ability and passion. (Wait—only three cylinders? What sort of wimpy metaphor is that? Don’t blame Mr. Crawford—that’s just my take on it and I’m only ¾ of the way through the book.)

Mr. Crawford notes that we must submit to a discipline—this is important—to become useful and adept at that discipline. Sort of like knowing the rules well so that you can break them well:

  • Mechanics must know the fundamentals of engines to work on them.
  • Writers must know how to speel, and the must know a grammar, to right. Otherwise, misunderstood. Are they?

Mr. Crawford’s take on authority is powerfully counterintuitive: we submit to the authority of a discipline so we can work within the logic and expectations and outcomes of that discipline. Along the way, after practicing that discipline for a time, it turns out we come to understand life through the tools and foci that discipline affords.

This notion of authority is counterintuitive because we Americans like to speak ill of authority every chance we get. I may be chief among the ill-speakers. That needs to change (though, of course, speak truth to power, and so on).

Here’s the point: looking back over the disciplines we’ve come to use every day is a key to how we understand the world and how we process life. Some people understand life through their writing. Some people process life through their woodworking. Some through watercolor or costume design or clipping topiaries.

There is a link between who we are and what we do.


Dumb sketch: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

September 11, 2015 at 9:41 am

Colbert: On Flop Sweat and Embracing the Bomb

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Man in spotlight laughs with failure

Lovely death mask courtesy Time magazine

Lovely death mask courtesy Time magazine

The recent excellent GQ article (By Joel Lovell) on Colbert illuminates the thoughtful wells the comedian will pull from as he starts his late night gig tonight. Is he a moral intellectual? A public thinker? A likeable guy on stage who talks with a knife? Is he a comedian with a charter to entertain?


One revealing quote deep in the article shows Colbert’s dance with failure:

…longtime Second City director Jeff Michalski told them that the most important lesson he could pass on to them was this: “You have to learn to love the bomb.”

“It took me a long time to really understand what that meant,” Colbert said. “It wasn’t ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get it next time.’ It wasn’t ‘Laugh it off.’ No, it means what it says. You gotta learn to love when you’re failing.… The embracing of that, the discomfort of failing in front of an audience, leads you to penetrate through the fear that blinds you. Fear is the mind killer.”

What is true for improv and comedy is also true for teaching, business meetings and ordinary conversation. We just might fail. We might fail to connect. We might fail to convince. We might fail to feed the self-image we continually tend, whether that image is macho or hip or knowing or controlled.

I cannot help but wonder if our growing xenophobia—an unfortunate currency in play by many presidential hopefuls—is a response to fear of honest but hard conversations. That kind of conversations that need to happen between us. All of us.

Philosopher turned motorcycle mechanic Matthew B. Crawford’s insightful book The World Beyond Your Head: On becoming an individual in an age of distraction (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015) writes about the role of apprenticeships and (some) graduate programs in helping the newcomer absorb the wisdom and knowledge of the group. Growing understanding happens through didactic methods of course, lecture and the like. But much of what we know arrives as a sort of tacit knowledge—a kind of knowledge that shows up from watching others do a task.

On the way to this and many other connected points, Crawford points out again and again that we need the conversations and the interactions with others in order to understand who we are. We need interactions within our tribe—yes—but we also need the interactions outside our tribe. These can be clarifying interactions: they help us understand what we know and what we believe about the world.

All this to say:

  1. I look forward to Steven Colbert’s masterful comedy/public thinking.
  2. I want to grow at hard conversations—even if they gut the self-image I so carefully tend.
  3. I/we need to embrace the people who are different rather than push them away. They have powerful things to teach us—and that is part of the collective wisdom of our U.S. of A.


Written by kirkistan

September 8, 2015 at 9:25 am

Care for the Communicator’s Soul

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517geRI9byL._SS500_[1]As a communication manager for a medical device company, my colleagues and I understood the company would push as far as you would go, using every last drop of your energy. Oh sure, there was talk of work/life balance—that would be the official line. But the reality was that expectations constantly ratcheted up and, depending on the ambition of your director/VP, an imbalance toward life (versus work) was not well received. Given this set of conditions, where does the communicator get the courage to take care of themselves?

I thought of how to combat this set of conditions recently after conversations with two talented friends who had been sprinting through their work lives for the last two years—both of them at a medical device company notorious for burning personnel down to the nub. Two answers come to mind: craft and spirit.


In Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (NY: Penguin Press, 2009), Matthew B. Crawford makes the point that the trades are actually intellectually stimulating (writing from the standpoint of a philosopher/motorcycle mechanic) while the work of knowledge workers more often approaches the work of clerks as actual decisions and craft move up to the corner office or out of the office altogether. I think Crawford is right. I suggest that finding a corner of one’s work life to practice one’s craft may have a healing effect on the soul. For me it had to do with getting back to handling sentences and spinning out arguments with words that served clients and their worthwhile activities. But another friend’s craft is directly related to helping members of an organization live up to their gifts and the organization to its stated vision. Doing what we’re meant to do has a healing effect.



There really is no one who will shepherd your soul at work—unless you have a pastorally-gifted person in the cubicle next to you. On the other hand, the gift of conversation is one of the deep joys of working with great people. And there is nothing like an honest conversation to refresh the soul. Of course, I’m not talking about the catty cynicisms that pass in gossip around the coffee station—those rob the soul as surely as the micromanaging boss. Our spirit is refreshed by honest conversation—it’s part of how God made us.

 If we can  carve out time to practice our craft and watch out for our spirit (and, perhaps, even the souls of the people around us), we may find ourselves with the courage to say “No” to running on empty.


Written by kirkistan

July 14, 2009 at 8:15 pm

Posted in art and work

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