I Don’t Do Real Work

The real workers

Just ask my son. He doesn’t know what I do. I go into my (home) office and do my computer programming, which is incomprehensible to him.

“Papa, show me the garbage trucks!” he shouts.

We watch youtube videos of garbage men picking up trash cans and dumping them into the trucks. He loves it. It’s real. Then we watch excavators dig huge scoops of dirt and drop them into dump trucks, while graders run in the background smoothing over the ground.

The work I do is all in my head. Abstractions. Things you can’t visualize easily. The great thing about it is I can work from home, since my products are all digitizable and transferrable over network connections via packets of data. And my job pays better than most construction jobs.

But I can’t help but think my son doesn’t see me do real work. Today we went out and watched the men–all Mexicans*–fixing the road. One was operating a mini-steamroller; one was in a bobcat with a front loader picking up the busted pieces of concrete and depositing them (with a bang!) into a dump truck. Meanwhile the other three guys were sweeping up bits of dust and concrete into piles and putting them into the bobcat’s loader. My son watched in fascination, and so did I. “They’re really doing something!”

I can’t explain to him that most of the “good” jobs are now all mental ones. Physical work isn’t valued and is even looked down upon, in spite of the absolute necessity of such trades and labor.

This is another reason I want some acreage and a small farm. Even if I keep my mental job until I’m seventy, I want my son to see me working in the fields, running the tractor, planting the crops, training the draft animals, building the barns. And I want him to be able to join me in it, something he can’t do with computer programming for a long, long time.

This is a conundrum facing our families and especially fathers today: how do we show our sons what true manly work is while still providing for our families? We don’t fight with swords anymore, or go on crusades. We don’t farm and ranch anymore. By and large, we don’t have trades anymore: carpenters, masons, cobblers, coopers, smiths. So our children don’t see us doing something that looks real, and that creates a disconnect between us and them.

My dad was a butcher, and I was proud that I knew what he did, and that he did something so self-evidently real. He didn’t make much money; matter of fact my first job out of school paid more than his did, in spite of the fact he had worked for thirty years in his line of work. But he provided for us and made it possible for me to have a “better” life. Now I’m trying to find a way to get back to a life more like his!

So I do real work–stuff that goes into computers and coffee makers and solar panels and car engines and satellites and airport baggage scanners–but it’s all invisible, so to my children it may as well not be real work.

Something I’m noodling. Feel free to share your thoughts on this.

* When I say “Mexicans,” I mean “people from Mexico, typically first-generation.” It was brought to my attention that some people use the word “Mexican” in a derogatory sense. I don’t. My dad is Honduran, and by that I mean, from Honduras, so I don’t look at any person’s homeland as being something bad.

30 thoughts on “I Don’t Do Real Work”

  1. I guess it really depends on whether you want to teach your children that Real Manly Work is necessarily equated with lifting heavy things, swinging metal tools, or working with animals.

    Your son doesn’t necessarily need to understand the details of what you do in order to understand that you work hard at it, that you enjoy the challenges it brings, that you relish the feeling of fulfillment it brings, that you are always looking for ways to do it better, and that at the same time you follow the duty of providing for your family. Of what else is “manly work” comprised?

    This is not to say that there is anything wrong with manual labor or with the people who perform it. I think the best thing you can show your children, however, is that “manly” describes not the work itself (and especially not how it looks) but the people doing the work, the way they do it, and the attitude they bring to it.

  2. “I can’t explain to him that most of the β€œgood” jobs are now all mental ones.” A good job isn’t necessarily the one that brings in the most income. It the one in which you find most fulfillment and enjoyment. Helping your son find his true vocation and being happy with it regardless of what it is is the best thing you can do as a father. By fostering his gifts and talents, you can make sure that he is doing what he was created to do– even if it’s not a “mental” job.

  3. Thanks for posting this. I’ve often thought along similar lines. A while back I made a comment to my now 3 year old girl that the sacker at the grocery store was ‘working.’ Now she is convinced that I sack groceries even though I have brought her to my office where I work.

    My dad was in the Navy. He flew in airplanes. His work was pretty tangible to the imagination of a little kid.

    One thing is that I make a point to do the labor around my home as much as possible. Yard work, handy man stuff etc. For one thing I like it and for another thing I want my kids to see manual labor and not be scared of it.

  4. I posted something about this on Twitter the other day. Every now and then, my boys ask me what I did at work that day. It’s always the same thing–talked on the phone, emailed, wrote. When I say it to them it seems kind of lame, but it’s really more fun than it sounds. πŸ˜‰ I used to do tangible things like flying airplanes but not anymore.

    I never thought about the idea of doing real work with them. I do want to do volunteer work with them when they get older though. Stuff like working in a soup kitchen. That was my idea for getting them exposed to real work and really helping people. Interesting thoughts. Thanks Devin.

  5. I think the answer is that we need to embrace holy poverty.

    And unlike a previous commenter, I think that our work (mine and your’s Devin) is not manly, and our kids are correct to be bored by it.
    I am a electronics technician, you’re a programmer. There is no way in heck that our kids will be able to see a connection between what we do all day and the bacon they ate for breakfast. They are interested in where the bacon came from, but they are rightfully suspicious of our claims to having provided it.

    I think perhaps we have put money ahead of a proper understanding of work and family. And I think that our kids are smarter than we give them credit for. If they don’t know what we do, then there is a real sense in which we really arent doing anything. Like a realtor or an accountant, perhaps some of us don’t actually DO anything.

  6. Wow, so many thoughts on this topic–I want to write a post or just call you and discuss it. So instead, I’ll just say, “Devin Rose is still a punk.”

  7. I appreciate the post. My oldest boy is 3 1/2 so I think about this also. I have a ‘thinking’ job and want to be able to pass on ‘manly work ethic’ to my boys. I think there is truth in what both Ben and David replied. Work ethic can (and needs to) be learned no matter what the ‘job’ entails, tangible or not. There is also something that I think men are drawn to in wanting the tangible. I believe it is part of how God made us.

    I also try to make the most of yard work (buying manual hedge trimmers v. electric, etc.), but I’m also leaning toward developing a hands-on hobby. Maybe woodworking, maybe writing icons, who knows? What I do know is that I, as a man, long to see tangible outcomes to how I spend my time. (And the reports I write, I’m a researcher, just don’t quite cut it for me.)

    1. Thadeus, I’ve thought about wood working, too, or whittling. But I think I need someone to teach me to be able to have a clue about it!

  8. Hi there, first time commenter. Your post made me think of Matthew Crawford’s book “Shop Class as Soulcraft”. Crawford was a PhD working for some kind of think tank in Washington and realized that the work was driving him crazy, so he started to learn motorcycle repair and never looked back (although obviously he still wrote a book). One of the key problems with “knowledge work” he points to is that it doesn’t always have clear criteria for success and failure. In a “real” job, you know you’ve failed if the motorcycle doesn’t start, the crops don’t grow, the road isn’t flat, or what have you. In a lot of knowledge jobs like teaching, writing, marketing, etc., the criteria for success or failure are subjective. You also never really know when a job is “done” and you can’t show your kid, “I did this”. You may have those things with a computer programming job (it really depends what you’re programming), but if you don’t, you ought to seek them out! I highly recommend the book.

    I agree with commenter David Meyer above. The “manly” thing to do might be to change jobs and live with less money. Easier to say than to do, though. We do get stuck in ruts.

    1. That’s a great book – I gave a copy to my stepdad last year for Father’s Day. He is a retired professor of vocational education so he really knows his way around a workshop, and he’s always – ALWAYS – working on something. We love having him come visit because he likes to hang pictures, trim trees, anything useful around the house. My husband is now a commercial lending officer so he does get to go out and work with business owners, inspect commercial properties, etc., but for a long time he was a software engineer and his job did consist of sitting in front of screens. Our eldest seems to think that screen-sitting is a fine career and easy, to boot, as he keeps asking both of us when he can learn to program games for the iPod. I tend to tell him to go outside.

      Excellent post, Devin!

  9. Great post Devin! BTW, Congratulations. Look forward to having you back some time!
    Regarding the post, I agree that CREATING opportunities to take on a tangible challenges, whether work or a hobby or a weekend task, with your children at your side is imperative for our boys to become MEN. One of the beauties of doing this, particularly when it involves working with other people, is that your children see and absorb how you interact with others – particularly during challenges or conflicts. Some of my fondest memories of my dad involved watching him deal with people while working or during a particular task.
    I recently had an encounter with an individual in a store that lost all composure in public and became extremely angry with me. My 6 year old and my 8 year old boys were with me….and I am convinced they memorized my every move during that encounter. There is no more effective way of teaching those values of love, respect, honesty, and work ethic. I am convinced the trick is to be together. Work, play, rest, eat, and pray TOGETHER. I certainly don’t do enough of it…

  10. Tradesmen are at a disadvantage in the present economy because much of it is directed toward monetary gains through usury and absentee ownership (i.e., holding stock in great corporations). What counts is being the manager, not doing the actual work. The investor who knows nothing about the real work of the company takes precedence over the employee who does the work. This nameless and place-less investor also takes precedence over any real places or communities.

    This is why foreign and Mexican labor is favored. It is temporary, distant, unrelatable and therefore cheap. It may put one’s fellow Americans out of work but, you see, they deserved to fail. It also exploits the Mexicans, who would be better off in their homeland in their own culture working to own their own land and own their labor, rather than renting it out. But who cares about those Mexicans, anyway, right? They don’t understand “freedom,” not being American. And they have all those old fashioned beliefs about marriage and family solidarity. Why, it’s nothing but Romish superstition!

    Many Mexican farmers lost their land in part to American over-production of corn, which bankrupted Mexican farmers much like it did American small farmers 60 years ago. And, like 60 years ago, it drove the Mexican farmers into the cities and into a far more precarious and less independent existence. Are we better off for their failure?

    If the rules of the market were subtly changed here or there to favor laborers rather than investors, you would begin to see changes. Lifestyle changes are essential, but ultimately policy changes will have to be made as well because not everyone is free to just go out and start farming.

    It’s like Thomas Jefferson said (paraphrasing): If you let the banks and corporations take control of the issue of money and credit then they will draw all property and labor to themselves so that Americans will wake up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered. It’s basically where we are now.

  11. Good points Ben. And much of what you say about Mexicans also applies to the Chinese et. al. Eventually the chickens will come home to roost and we will have to face the true cost of our cheap (and often cheaply made) goods, as well as food that is not good quality.

  12. I had a very similar conversation with my daughter a couple of weeks ago. I asked her what she did today and she told me some great stories about playing with her friends and making a craft.

    Then she asked me about what I did today. I literally mumbled some sort of non-answer about emails and spreadsheets and she corrected me saying, “Daddy, you didn’t write your book yet!”

    I’ll hang my hat on the book once its out. At least we’ll both have that to share with our kids, Devin.

    1. Jared, yes I can sympathize. And what’s funny is, every time my son sees my book with my little picture on the back cover, he gets really excited! So hopefully that will happen with you as well.

      What is your book going to be about?

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