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Working Hands and Creative Confidence

“I’m pretty good at typing,” I thought to myself, as I  happily tapped away, improving my speed and accuracy. I then spotted two ninth grade girls huddling together, whispering about how dirty and gross my hands were. As a seventh grade boy I was mortified, but was far too intimidated to speak up. I’d have to faithfully type with exposed hands for the rest of the semester under the watch of their critical eyes. For the first time I was embarrassed of my grease stained, working hands.

Working Hands and Creative Confidence

By Cliff Hardle

An Informal Education

For most of us our hands are perhaps the most important connection to the world because they’re useful in countless ways. Skillful manipulation of our hands, carefully guided by insightful eyes, makes the difference between an artist and a handyman. If you’ve ever broken an arm, or had to go without using your hands you quickly realize how inconvenient life can be. Our hands also say a great deal about who we are as people, what our priorities are and what we spend our time doing. As a child I had the blessed opportunity to grow up in my Dad’s auto shop, which for much of my childhood was right outside our back door. I involved myself in creative and mechanical pursuits, building structures, digging holes, fixing bikes, and cleaning cars my dad was preparing to sell. I loved it. It was a childhood of exploration, hard work, hard play, and responsibility. My dad is an artist with his hands, and has always done far better work than he charged for. This upbringing instilled in me the same sense of artistic pursuit and pride in my work. By the age of ten I learned how to tighten a headset on a bike just tight enough, clean a carburetor, change car stereos, and get grime out of an abused car interior. My hands were my access to this interactive world and my means for accomplishing my tasks.

As I grew older my dad gave me more responsibilities. At 12 years old, becoming aware of the holes in my jeans, I desperately wanted extra cash to upscale my hand-me-down wardrobe. Circumstantially my dad had a 1994 Dodge Caravan that needed an engine replaced, and he was willing to pay me $100 to do the swap. I was excited, eager, and clueless about how to change an engine; I wasn’t even tall enough to reach over the core support to access any hoses or motor mounts. Undaunted, I puzzled over my first move. After carefully removing the hood (someone had to help me lift it off the car as I was still rather small) and draining the fluids, I climbed into the engine bay, right on top of the engine, and began removing hoses, wiring harnesses, and cables. It was a chess match of trial, error, and frustration. 

After reaching a point of exasperation I went to my dad for help, only to have him tell me he was busy and that I’d figure it out. With weighty tears of frustration, I shuffled back to my labor. After a few sliced knuckles and an exhausting wrestle with the driver-side half shaft, I slowly accomplished my goal. That first engine took me a couple of days to figure out, and it cost me some skin and tears. But because I had to figure out every piece of the task on my own, I absorbed the process completely and, after some more practice, learned to change engines with almost as much ease as baking a cake--with the added bonus of funding my teenage denim dreams. Even more, I learned to deal with ambiguous problems and to more positively manage discouragement when working through new problems. I gained confidence that I could figure out ambiguous problems. As much as I hated it at the time, I’m grateful for my dad’s confidence in allowing me the experience of attempting a task beyond my skill set.  

One side effect of these extracurricular activities was that I always had hard, calloused hands with unavoidable traces of oil and grease on my fingers and nail beds. This didn’t bother me much, and most of my friends enjoyed seeing, and occasionally participating, in my work. I remember one evening, arriving at my grandmother’s house, she gave me the customary lipstick-depositing kiss and commented on my strong, working hands, they were a thing to be proud of. That was until I took a typing class in seventh-grade. One day, as I sat  happily tapping away, improving my speed and accuracy, I spotted two ninth grade girls huddling together, whispering about how dirty and gross my hands were. As a seventh grade boy I was mortified, but was far too intimidated to speak up. I’d have to faithfully type with exposed hands for the rest of the semester under the watch of their critical eyes. For the first time I was embarrassed of my grease stained, working hands, despite the freedom, cash, and experience they’d given me.

The Conflict

Since that day in typing class I’ve spent much of my life actively trying to pursue a career that wouldn’t require me to be in the shop. My reasons for this are complicated. Despite loving the experience of growing up in an autoshop, and how much that has defined who I am, I grew up very aware that my family was never in a comfortable financial situation. I equated my dad’s blue-collar career with a low-income household struggling with financial problems and ultimately divorce. But, during my journey away from the automotive shop of my youth, I’ve still made use of the mechanical skills and patient approach I learned in my dad’s shop. To get through my undergraduate degree, I worked in several shops doing repair work, custom fabrication, and building world-class trophy trucks and half-million-dollar Cobras. But my eye was always on a “professional” career. It’s taken me 15 years of adult experience, two advanced degrees, and various corporate roles to realize that what I was running from wasn’t the life of a blue collar family, but the unfortunate ignorances of my well-meaning parents.

As I’ve worked in corporate America, I’ve been grateful for the flexible hours, perks, and paychecks I’ve received. Education and experience have provided me with a very different view of the world than that of my working-class family, and I’ve grown to appreciate the constant search for knowledge that defines academic life. Despite my active attempts to evade a blue collar life, I still glean satisfaction and pride from an artistic repair. I savor the melding of body and mind while sanding away at a curvaceous body, preparing for new paint. Of course, I may be romanticizing the backbreaking labor required for these jobs, and part of the reason I left that world was because I was sick of bondo dust in my eyes and up my nose. Yet my body has grown weak sitting at a desk and I struggle to find the same satisfaction creating spreadsheet data reports that few will see. It’s difficult to remember the last time I experienced a sense of flow in the office, but I have countless zen-like memories smoothing aluminum bodies, arranging tubing for headers, or forming a body panel just right. 

In his book “Shop Class as Soulcraft”, Matthew Crawford explores how our modern philosophy of farming our kids off to university has started to backfire. Rather than learning to create and solve problems, they’re taught to problem solve under specified rules of corporate structures in poor ergonomic situations our bodies were never designed for. We lose our sense of competence and connection as we try to reconcile and search for abstract measures of impact and control, such as Annual Customer Value or Internal Rates of Return. As the cubicle has replaced the shop, we’ve separated ourselves from the satisfaction of producing a final and complete product. We measure customer satisfaction through surveys rather than smiles, ecstatic exclamations and face-to-face interaction.

To stay in touch with my upbringing and innate mechanical tendencies I’ve kept the habit of  maintaining my own vehicles, almost to a fault. I still change the oil on our cars, the brakes, or whatever else I can find to repair--often prematurely--just to give me something to do with my hands. Sometimes this means I show up to my comfortable office job with the cracked and blackened hands that are so out of place in that environment. Occasionally I’ll get a look from someone and I explain what I’ve been up to. I wish I could tell my twelve-year-old self, after being shamed by two young girls in typing class, “Don’t worry, enjoy it,  these skills will give you so many adventures and memories in the coming years.” My mechanical skills and dirty, cracked hands have taken me to the Baja 1000, built some of my favorite cars , changed a bad thermostat on an interstate road trip, and helped a handful of friends and strangers with parking lot breakdowns, all moments I am very grateful for.

[My first exhaust and headers at Kirkham Motorsports]

[Custom shock reservoir brackets for a Shelby Cobra]

Our Modern Disconnect

Our Modern DisconnectWe often hear that Millennials don’t know how to work, and I’ve read plenty of articles about how my generation is inept at handy-man chores. The Rubber Manufacturers Association reported that “Most Millennial-aged women (89%) and Millennial-aged men (79%) are not considered “tire smart,” which means they do not check their tire pressure monthly, do not know where to find correct tire pressure, and do not check tires before they drive on them.” A recent survey by Pulsenet discovered that less than a quarter of millennials admitted to having “good” DIY skills. Most opt for having a handyman do relatively uncomplicated tasks around their homes. Rather than gifting erector sets, we give our kids Playstations and Xboxes. We’ve become accustomed to a world that hands us entertainment and comfort on a platter and have traded in our sense of ownership and connection as the expense. We’re largely consumers rather than creators, and we’ve lost a sense of control over our physical world. We try to find flow and community in a virtual world rather than by connecting with the physical one.

My argument is that analog, physical, mental work brings us a sense of connection to, and control of, our world. There’s little else that matches the excitement of turning over a freshly rebuilt engine, the pleasant glide of recently changed differential fluid, or the satisfaction of opening your hood and seeing your folk-engineered bracket holding strong.

Becoming Comfortable With a Breakable/Creative World

It’s alarming to be in a world where it’s often cheaper to replace things than to fix them. The unknown costs of repairing technologically complex items has frightened us away from wrenching on our own things. My advice: Try things. You’re going to screw up occasionally. By taking things apart, you’re also learning how to put them back together, possibly even better than when you started. Your hands are your greatest asset in helping you experience and interact with your world, so use them, get them dirty. There are plenty of ways to start, like buying a bicycle in need of repair or building a model car. You’ll probably discover that it’s not as hard as you anticipated, that your mind enjoys the puzzle, and that if you break something, there’s usually someone nearby who can help you fix it.

The other simple fix is to be aware of connecting with the analog world. Remember that your car is not just an appliance for relocation, but a means of interacting with your surroundings and an object to be improved. Next time you’re driving, try to sense the shape and feel of the tarmac through your steering wheel, or feel how your engine’s power curve falls flat at 5,000 RPM. Feel the push and pull of inertia as your steering inputs affect the balance of the chassis and how the tires work to save you from your ham-fisted inputs. 

In the end, hands-on problem solving and real, connected driving are as effective forms of meditation as any others you might find. Sure there will be times of disappointment and frustration, such as when you’ve stripped a bolt, sliced a knuckle, or have the debri from a rusty undercarriage falling in your eyes. No great reward comes without payment after all.


Part of Deft Auto is encouraging people to try new things and chase their dreams. This October, Steve and I have put this philosophy to the test by participating in the annual Inktober challenge on Instagram. The challenge is to sketch something, in ink every day during the month of October, and of course we’ve stuck to an automotive theme. I have to admit I’m very uncomfortable displaying my amateur attempts at automotive art in public, but I’ve already learned a lot and my skills are gradually improving. Head over to our Instagram account to see some of our work.

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