Working Remotely and Tangible Craft

Before I started working at Automattic (the folks behind WordPress.com and the Jetpack WordPress platform), I had a career in what I call progressive coffee: high end coffee, well made, ethically sourced, that kind of thing.

(I’ve written a little about my journey from a hospitality job to a job with a tech company here and here, if you’re curious about that)

While I was working at Seven Stars Bakery in Providence, Rhode Island, our biggest day of the week was Saturday, especially Saturday morning. One part of my job there was designing the layout of the employee space, as well as building and improving the training programs. Spending my Saturday mornings at the busiest location on the busiest day was a great way to ensure that my work was successful, and was adding value to the company and customers when the rubber hit the road.

During one of these shifts, I’d typically clock in 14,000+ steps: it is borderline insane to think about, now, when I struggle to get in 10,000 steps in a whole day!

Preparing really excellent espresso, tasting coffee to decide what to bring on as an offering: these are inherently and importantly physical and sensorial activities: awareness of the body and what it’s telling you is part and parcel of finding success in these pursuits. You have to not just heat the milk, you have to listen, to watch it, to gauge the temperature of the pitcher against your hand. You spend a lot of time focused on and attending to your sense inputs, using your body and its inputs in increasingly focused and demanding ways.

The combination of focused precise work (which being a quality-focused barista in a busy espresso bar absolutely is) with 14,000 steps meant that the days were cognitively and physically exhausting.

Moving away from this career into what I do now, working for a software company, and more specifically working fully remotely, was a real shift. It was a real change, in some ways I expected (I didn’t have to work on Saturdays anymore!) and in some ways I did not expect.

One of the unexpected changes was that I found I was attracted to hobbies that were much more manual: gardening at first, and more recently woodworking.

Over time I’ve come to realize that the part of me that is fulfilled by building things and planting vegetables is the same part of me that was fulfilled by those busy Saturdays: there’s a value to using the body, to getting to know what your body can do and how many amazing things you can teach it to accomplish.

Part of it, too, is that manual pursuits, physical crafts, impose humility on the practitioner: you cannot Google how to cut a perfect dovetail.

Well, that’s not true – you can Google it, and get lots of results! But, you can’t Google how to actually do it, like Neo in the Matrix. Once the saw hits the lumber, the truth comes out. There is no quick route: if you want to make beautiful things out of wood, you have to spend a lot of time making pretty ugly stuff first.

You simply have to put the miles on: there aren’t any shortcuts.

(This is also true for another new pursuit of mine – Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, but you’d have to substitute “make ugly stuff” to “get choked out by strangers” – different but the same!)

Like everything, becoming someone who works with code means re-learning everything I’ve known to be true again, in a new pursuit. I realized and came to appreciate the need for exposure, for time with my saws and chisels and on the mats – and at the outset it seemed so different from writing code. Coding, for the beginner, many times does feel like there are short cuts, with Stack Exchange, with other folks’ code or libraries, etc.

It turns out that what all those folks on Stack Exchange have been saying all this time (but are mostly ignored) is true: copy-pasting a solution that works is different from understanding the problem, from getting a deep sense of the solution and how to pursue it. It’s like buying someone else’s chest of drawers rather than building it yourself. It’s different from having the answer in your bones.

The more I learn, the more I learn that everything is the same. For me, I’ve learned that remote work is an amazing way to work, and writing software and doing data work is special, and important, and so satisfying: but the brain and the body, or my brain and body at least, really need that opportunity to do work in the physical space, to hold something, to engage in craft that doesn’t happen on my laptop screen.

If you are a remote worker, and you don’t have a hobby or pursuit that takes you off of your computer and into the garage or the gym – you should give it a try!

5 thoughts on “Working Remotely and Tangible Craft

  1. Seems Saturday mornings are the busiest for the cafes near where I live too. 😀

    I understand and related to the concept of Tangible Craft you mentioned. I totally appreciate it. I think that’s why I learned how to use an espresso machine at my previous workplace. And earlier this year I derived immense pleasure from fixing blinds to my home’s windows, fixing curtain rods and assembling some wardrobes without much experience. I just produced good enough which is still exciting for me. From the teeny bit of experience I gained I did even better job at my friend’s house. But I also wouldn’t go about making or tinkering everything myself. I guess having a good judgement of when to be hands on and when not to goes a long way.

    Glad to see you posting again!

  2. Simon — I’m glad I stumbled on this. I love this bit:

    Once the saw hits the lumber, the truth comes out. There is no quick route: if you want to make beautiful things out of wood, you have to spend a lot of time making pretty ugly stuff first.

    I’ve been thinking about this sort of stuff a lot lately, as I’ve grown and tended my vegetable garden on our small farm that is just a year old. Last year, being very new to gardening, I honestly had no idea what I was doing the first time around, but this spring, with a bit more confidence, I found myself moving about the raised beds more naturally: pulling seedlings apart firmly but with care, pruning and deadheading plants without fear, using stakes and tools without thinking, and just feeling my hands in the soil in a new way, like they belonged there. That feeling in your bones, as you said.

    And over the past year and a half, I’ve also taken on another pursuit — taiko drumming — which is another outlet that has awoken my whole body, perhaps similar to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for you.

    Anyway, your thoughts here reminded me of a post I’d read a while ago, by a writer/craftsman who muses on the “work of the body.” A snippet:

    I love books, and I can’t imagine how I’d have ever gotten into woodworking, let alone kept developing skills, without libraries and magazines and television and the internet. But I can’t help thinking we’re hamstrung by relying so heavily on all these visual and intellectual means of instruction for what is, after all, work of the body.

    1. Do you feel like there’s something there, there?

      That is, I don’t know if it’s a feature of working remotely or a feature of getting older (or maybe a little of both), that makes this kind of work of the body more appealing now, or maybe more weighty now, than before.

  3. I currently work in a field where I need to travel at least once per week and it is difficult because my wife and I just had our first kid. He is 12 weeks old now and I hate jumping on an airplane knowing I am probably going to miss something at home. I also have a side business with my father, which I am trying to grow. I do not know what type of business I could do remotely at this point. I did write a book that I put on Amazon titled Down on the Pharm, which was about my first three years out of college working for a startup pharma company. I like your post… nice!

    1. Travel can be tough with the kiddos: our little ones are four and almost two, and solo time is easier and easier, so, you have that to look forward to!

      I’m of the opinion that anything you can do in an office, you can pretty much do remotely!

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