Not All Activities are Humble

The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as 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 Gardner

When I have time in the morning before I go to class, I often turn on CNBC to see what’s going on in the markets and what’s happening in the news.  That channel is… amazing.  It’s like watching Sesame Street meets The Electric Company for adults.  It’s educational, it’s fast-paced, and there are so many colors and moving parts that my eyes can barely follow as everything flits across the screen.

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How I View CNBC

One of my favorite segments is “The Santelli Exchange”, where Rick Santelli offers his two cents about anything and everything market-related (that’s actually where the term “Tea Party” used to describe the 2010 Republican movement came from). So let today’s post be “The Diamond Exchange”, because I want to offer perspective on something that happened to me recently.

I was talking to an investment professional who tracks market movements for a living.  He was discussing what his day-to-day is like, his views on the industry as a whole, and where his biggest problems lied.  And then he said something that floored me. While discussing his analytical approach and his issues sorting through data to parse what is accurate and what’s misleading, he said:

Honestly, this is still just a blue-collar job.

He viewed his work theorizing about the markets and movements as akin to working in a factory, putting in long shifts on an hourly wage.  Frankly, I think this is the wrong attitude.  I’ve written before on being grateful for what you have and redirecting your energy away from the small worries and into the bigger picture issues.  But the Yin to that Yang of gratitude is to be grateful for other people and what they do.  I’m very grateful for the working-class men and women of this country who support our energy, manufacturing, and industrial sectors that require hard, day-in day-out, blue-collar manual labor.  And I do not want to minimize the work they do by saying that what knowledge workers do is anything like that.

What most white-collar professionals do is of an entirely different cloth: we are the philosophers of today’s day and age.  Software engineers do build, but their implementations are based on complex theories (often untested!) of how systems will interact and perform in production.  MBAs make a living as consultants and bankers developing theories and ideas about mergers, productivity initiatives, innovation, etc. that they experiment with in the workplace.  Their intellectual work product is extremely valuable, but the workers in those fields are very fortunate to have fewer physical ailments and earlier retirement than their blue-collar counterparts.

Speaking from experience, these physical maladies are especially difficult to work through. When I was at Amazon, I had a relapse of a sports-related back injury that required a cortisone shot and lots of PT to work through.  I can testify to how debilitating that was.  Both my professional and personal productivity suffered greatly, and just getting on the subway to commute to Cambridge each day was a struggle.  And I can testify to how different this was than my intellectual struggles.  Yes, I am exhausted when I go home from Booth at the end of a day working on cases, attending lectures, and writing papers.  But that is completely different from the physical low that came with my injury, and that comes with manual labor.

So, I think it’s important to continually remind ourselves of the supreme value of blue-collar work, and remind us of it’s different, important place in our society.  Although the knowledge economy is firmly here, and growing rapidly, I truly hope there is always a revered place in our society for manual laborers so that both our pipes and our theories continue to hold water.

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