Hannah Coolidge

On Learning a Trade


John H. White, photograph of student welders in Chicago, 1973

It seems that every generation has its own class of young people who are suspicious of work (I’m talking about you, my Hypocrites!), and rightfully so—you’ve seen, in your parents or in others, that jobs don’t usually make people happy or fulfilled, that the stability jobs are supposed to provide isn’t all that stable, and that job security seems to come at an incommensurable cost to your freedom or integrity. You’ve most likely had a job or two that made you miserable; you’ve probably suffered the humiliation of applying to jobs that you didn’t even want.

So now instead of working, or, more precisely, instead of getting a real job, you do what you can to get by. There’s a lot of tutoring and freelancing and selling body parts, begging and borrowing and maybe stealing, sleeping on beaches and hopping trains and working in exchange for food or rent—the strategies vary depending on who you are and where you come from, what your skills are and which discomforts you’re willing to endure. There’s a lot of freedom in this lifestyle, not only freedom to do what you want and go where you want, but also freedom from the things you thought you needed to be safe or happy (for example: lots of money, a significant other who will inevitably become your spouse, a clean house or apartment with new or almost-new furniture). And because you’ve given up on doing what you’re supposed to do, you now have more space to be yourself, and you have the space to create things, whether it’s art or politics or a magazine.

You have a lot of time on your hands and sometimes that’s nice but sometimes you feel like you’re wasting it; and it’s harder to justify not having a real job when in spite of not having one you still feel anxious or bored or depressed sometimes, maybe even a lot of the time. Sometimes you feel like you’re living the dream and sometimes you feel as though you’re living in somebody else’s, although you can’t say whose.

And you’re more vulnerable to accusations of sloth and selfishness and dilettantism, of living for your own pleasure and nothing else, of always taking and never giving, never producing anything, and even though mostly these accusations come from people who are jealous or small-minded or don’t understand you and haven’t tried, sometimes their accusations hurt. They hurt because you’re afraid these people might be right, you’re afraid you see some sinister half-truth lurking among their unfair assessments of you and the people you love, but still you manage to ignore them, mostly, because you know that what they want for you, to get a real job or whatever, isn’t what you need.

And I’m not here to suggest an alternative to your lifestyle, whatever that may be, but rather to suggest a useful supplement, one that will make you stronger and more impervious to shame and self-doubt, which is called learning a trade, which is not to be confused with having a job, and certainly not with having a real job. Having a job is something you do to pay the bills, or to have health insurance, or to kill time, or to make your parents happy. (Having a real job is something you do to have three or more of the above.) Learning a trade is about finding a job—preferably one where you work with your hands—and devoting yourself entirely to your work in that profession, if only for 40 hours a week. Learning a trade is emphatically not about finding a career for yourself nor is it about following your passions: it’s about learning to love and succeed at something that’s not yours.


Since last October I’ve been working for a metal sculptor in Sequim, Washington1, on the northeast side of the Olympic Peninsula. He makes his art (gates, benches, fire pits, outdoor lighting systems, water features, kinetic sculptures, footbridges, and so on) mostly out of recycled materials, mostly scrap steel that he buys at 20 cents a pound from scrap yards around the peninsula, and rock screen in different sizes that he’s bought from mining companies in Arizona and southern Utah. He uses ball bearings and car clutches, truck rims and disc harrow blades, gas lines and parts stolen from the original Elwha dam. He uses pieces of the fiber optic telephone cable that once ran underwater from Port Angeles to Victoria, which, after being retired from its original use, was stored in a barn that subsequently caught fire, burning most of the galvanization from the cable and making it pliable and safer to weld. (Galvanization is a zinc coating that makes metal waterproof and rustproof and very strong. Welding or otherwise burning galvanized steel releases zinc oxide fumes into the air, which are linked to “metal fume fever” and infertility.)

My job is to do most of the welding that happens in the shop, cut metal to size and straighten or bend rock screen as needed, clean sharp edges and weld spatter from the finished pieces. I work together with my boss on big commissioned pieces and I build a lot of smaller products on my own, trellises and birdbaths and simple kinetics, products that sell for 25 to several hundred dollars at nurseries and garden stores.

I enjoy the obvious pleasures of working with my hands, of being engaged in mindless tasks that allow me to think of other things while I work, so that when I’m running a bead or pounding washers in half or bending rods into circles I can plot and daydream and think about my writing projects. There’s my ever-growing familiarity with the routines of metal fabrication, my ever-growing fondness for the neon glow of the welding arc and for the warm crackle of my welding gun against a piece of steel; I’ve even come to love the smell of metal fumes and the feel of rust-grit settling on my teeth when I take off my respirator inside the shop. Since we do all our fabrication by hand there are the challenge-pleasures, too, of figuring out how to cut a perfect circle without a machine to do it for us, how to make a set of hinges from scratch, or how to cut a straight line along a length of circular pipe, which is harder than it sounds.

On Repetition

As important as any of the specific joys of metal fabrication, however, there’s the freedom that comes with the forced, endless repetition of an elementary set of tasks. I mentioned already that learning a trade should be done discretely from the pursuit of your passions, and I’ll add now that to learn a trade you should divorce yourself, too, from all romantic notions about the task at hand. (Only temporarily, of course—you can siphon those back into your work when the time comes, but be patient!)

The problem with following your passions and the problem with romance is that with both comes the temptation to leap ahead. You want all the agony and all the ecstasy and you want it now, and so you take shortcuts, you forget how little you actually know and you forget, too, that you haven’t yet learned how to find for yourself the agony or the ecstasy in whatever task you’re engaged in. So even without meaning to you dip into the preexisting mythology of your trade to define your experience, you identify as a welder before you’ve given yourself time to figure out what that even means, and when the legitimacy of your knowledge or skill is under attack you fall back on the ineffable authority of being a welder instead of calling on what you know to defend you.

But if you first commit to learning the most elementary skills of your trade, if you perform a single task over and over again before you move on from it, working your way through the boredom and the minor discomforts and the frustrations and the small pleasures of whatever your task may be, it becomes yours. Even if you aren’t an expert on it, even if you know as little or less about it than anyone else in your shop, you’ve come to know intimately the way the work itself changes as you perform it in different moods and mental states (boredom, distraction, impatience, giddiness, and hunger, to name a few), and you’ve found that this familiarity is its own authority. You’ve learned that hot weld-spatter on your arms doesn’t really bother you most of the time, but when you’re tired or hungry or you’ve been drinking tequila it drives you crazy, and the quality of your welds deteriorates at the same rate as your mental condition. You know that you can normally eyeball whether or not something is straight or even, but when you’ve slept less than five hours the night before you’d better break out that measuring tape just to be sure. And you’ve learned to confront the boredom that comes most days, usually in the late afternoon—you’ve learned to find small challenges in the most repetitive tasks so that you’re always getting faster and more precise with every cut and every weld. Or maybe you’ve learned, too, to let yourself be bored with your work sometimes.

You’ve also learned that it’s okay to get frustrated, that when weld keeps sticking to the nozzle of your gun no matter how much lubricant you put on it, or when the gas won’t flow properly through the hose and all your welds look like crap, it’s fine to want to throw your welding gun on the floor and stomp on it, maybe even take a hammer to the dumb thing. But you don’t—that would make things so much worse—so you treat the tool gently and with love, even though you don’t feel much love for it today. And maybe being gentle helps you out: you’d still prefer a different welding gun, or a better nozzle for it, but you’ve found that if you treat yours with a little finesse and care you can still make the welds turn out nicely.

It’s likely that your progress will go unnoticed by your boss, or at least it’ll seem that way to you, and it’s not your place to point out how you’ve improved or what a clever tool you’ve devised to make your work more efficient, so you remain silent and keep improving; he may compliment you sometimes but mostly what you hear is criticism and instructions that don’t make much sense. Yet this only makes the work even more your own—you can’t possibly work for the sake of approval because you aren’t getting any, and since your boss is entrusting you with increasingly complicated and difficult tasks as the weeks go by, these increasingly difficult tasks become yours in the way that the simple tasks once did.

By now your intimacy with the profession has extended far beyond the basic skill set, and with that intimacy comes an increasingly secure authority built on experience and silent toil, one that you feel like you’ve earned, one you feel that no one can strip from you. Maybe you use this authority to speak about welding or to teach others how to weld: you no longer rely on the implication of some authority greater than yourself to give your words strength, because you know you don’t need that anymore. You can build almost anything that’s made in the shop, and you’ve figured out ways to build products faster and with less material waste; maybe you have ideas about new designs and products of your own. It’s no longer relevant to ask whether or not you’re someone who’s good at welding—whether you’re a welder yet—because through your endless repetition you’ve learned that this is a nonsensical question. All that matters now is whether you’ve done a thing well this time, and how you might have done better—because you can always do better and you can always keep learning. Not for the sake of profit or approval, but for your own sake and for the sake of the work that you love.

On Authority

But learning a trade doesn’t happen in a vacuum: it’s not just you and your materials, coexisting in perfect harmony; you have to deal with people, too. You’ve subjected yourself willingly to your boss’s authority in order to learn from him, and he may not always wield that authority justly. You may have coworkers who treat you unfairly, who point out each of your mistakes with a cruel smirk as if each screw-up proves that you’re a failure. You may work with kind and talented people who are openly respectful of the things you know and who are willing to teach you the things you don’t—and these people, too, may treat you unfairly at times.

Criticism is always hard to take, it stings a little no matter how it’s said, and you’re particularly vulnerable because of your well-developed sense of shame. You’re highly attuned to the subtle injustices and abuses lurking within the most straightforward language, and in every criticism spoken sharply you hear not only the words themselves but the implication that you’re incompetent or unworthy. But you can use this, too, to your advantage, to keep learning and improving where others would stop and rest (because they’ve finished the job, because it’s good enough—or because they’re getting paid by the hour).

Sometimes your boss’s criticism is genuinely unfair, spoken in a moment of exhaustion or impatience: sometimes when he cuts a piece of metal unevenly he blames it on you, or he yells at you for putting a tool in the wrong place even though that’s where he told you to put it. Sometimes you only perceive his words to be unfair because you yourself are unhappy or impatient, like when he jokes about your incompetence as a welder. He means it as a compliment—he’s so impressed by your welding skill that the idea of you actually being incompetent is ludicrous to him—but you feel hurt anyway, on account of that well-developed sense of shame of yours, or maybe because you’re in a bad mood. Mostly his criticism is a little bit of both, a useful comment and one you could learn from, but one that’s been spoken in a way that’s less than gentle. But you’re not here to play judge, not today—you’re here to learn a trade, and so you’re willing to suspend your sense of injustice, if only for a moment, and regard the criticism at face value, without fear and without shame, to accept the parts that might improve you and discard the parts that won’t.

But still it’s not easy. (It’s never easy, Hypocrites!) Sometimes—even though you try—you can’t simply discard the parts of his criticism that won’t improve you, the ones that are unfair, because they make you feel so ashamed, and shame, like frustration, is real even when it isn’t useful. And sometimes you don’t want to overcome your shame because you’re suspicious of this whole overcoming-shame business anyway, because isn’t it just the squeaky voice of that demon on your shoulder, that pesky spirit-of-capitalism telling you to produce, produce, and keep producing, and if you can’t produce you must be sick?

And maybe this isn’t just some minor shame—whatever your boss said to you has reopened some deeper wound, one that’s never had a chance to heal properly because it keeps getting opened over and over again by people who don’t mean to hurt you, but still do.

For example: one afternoon your boss and another employee are lounging at the back of the shop, talking about girls and sports and other manly things while you work tirelessly—because, for god’s sake, there’s still work to be done!—and when you stop working for a moment and try to join their conversation, your boss says, get back to work, bitch! He’s joking, of course—in fact you’re confident that he admires you and appreciates your hard work—but when you get home that evening you cry in the shower for 20 minutes.

After you’re done crying (but please, take your time, get it all out, here’s a tissue, blow your nose) you start to think about ways that you could really hurt him. And you feel like you’re allowed to hurt him, because he’s hurt you with privilege he doesn’t even know he has, after you’ve worked so hard for his sake, after he’s made so much money off your labor while you’ve made minimum wage or a little bit more. But mostly you’re allowed to hurt him because he made you feel so fucking weak, and the worst part is, it seems as though all the institutions in the world are in his favor: it seems impossible to tell him that he’s hurt you without sounding like a lunatic. Women are just crazy, he’ll say, and shake his head, and he doesn’t even have to mean it for his words to tear right through you.

So you’re thinking about how you can hurt him, or maybe you’re feeling generous now and you only want to explain to him how he’s hurt you, in words he’ll understand, and the idea that first comes to your head is that you can teach him about his privilege, you can reveal to him all the secret invisible advantages that he enjoys without paying for. And while you’re thinking about your boss’s privilege, it occurs to you that, in spite of feeling vulnerable, you’re young and incisively clever, strong and well-spoken, infinitely malleable and able to learn new tricks at the drop of a hat, and maybe you have other kinds of privilege, too, kinds that you haven’t even thought about. Which doesn’t lessen the injustice of your boss’s words2, but you realize that just as he has so many different kinds of authority over you—even though he can shame you into silence with a few offhand words, or capitalize on your hard work without sharing any of the profit—you yourself have the privilege of speech, the privilege of intellectual authority; and it occurs to you that not everyone has this authority, and just like any other it must be wielded with the utmost care and respect. Because the thing about authority is that it’s not always easy to see who you’re hurting with it, and you know this as well as anyone because it’s happened to you.

But you haven’t given up on teaching your boss about his privilege, because his still seems intimidatingly larger than your own, and just to be fair you decide to measure them side by side: the privilege of age, experience, and maleness against the privilege of youthful tenacity and clever speech. But then you find that you’re counting apples and oranges and the math just doesn’t work out. You think about the ways you’ve seen other people argue about privilege—who has it and what it’s worth—and you realize that most of the arguments you’ve seen aren’t substantially different from the way that people bicker over goods or money. You realize that it’s not necessarily useful to weigh one type of privilege against another, which is not to say that you can’t talk about it anymore—a lot of times you have to talk about it, just as you have to talk about money simply because it’s there—but rather to say that when you do talk about it, your language is still defined by the same shaky arithmetic that values your time at 8-15 dollars an hour, the same arithmetic that insists on measuring what is incommensurable and can suck even the most clever, compassionate people into a mire of suspicion and greed. And then you realize that in spite of yourself you’ve turned privilege, too, into a commodity like any other: a ‘finite’ resource that must be paid for, not in food or money or physical objects, but in shame—which for you, sweet Hypocrites, is dearer than any lump of cash.

But by learning a trade, by devoting yourself to the soulless unceasing production that we’re all so leery of, by committing yourself with patience and humility to its elemental forms and finding soul where there isn’t any, you’ve started to learn what might be the beginning of a new and freer language.3

1For the record: the metal fabrication job is only one example of a trade I’ve learned, and not all the stories in this article refer to my experiences in that job.

2In fact, if he even tried to hint at your privilege while you were schooling him on his, you’d slit his throat—or maybe you’d cry. You’re not sure which.

3This article is no allegory—I really do want all of you to drop everything and go apprentice yourselves in some trade—so if you want practical advice on learning a trade, I’ll help you out. My e-mail is hannah.coolidge@gmail.com.

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