Have you ever considered a career path that involved creating things with your hands? Or have you ever used your hands as a staple of your profession apart from writing with a pen or working on a computer?
As Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the best-selling book, Eat, Pray, Love, states in an "On Being" interview with Krista Tippett: "The entire world . . has been altered by the human hand . . . making things a little more beautiful than they have to be, altering things, changing things, building things, composing things, shaping things. This is what we do . . . And no one is left out of the inheritance of that."
I was reminded of that quote when I visited the Rosie the Riveter museum in Richmond, California, where thousands of people— the majority of whom were women entering the work force for the first time— came in 1941 to work in the huge shipyard there as part of a major armed forces buildup as the US entered World War II. For these women it was an incredible experience to use their hands and minds outside the home to create enormous ships that the lives of men in the military would depend on. The skills, self-confidence, and professional camaraderie they developed on the job in a common cause I believe also helped set the bar for the second wave of women's rights activism in the early 60's.
Personally, I'm quite tactile and have always enjoyed using my hands to make things and explore the world. However, because my education from age seven on was primarily conceptual and to some degree social, the focus of the work I expected I would do as a career was also conceptually based. In my book, Success with Soul, I described what it was like when I changed careers from nonprofit program development to somatic therapy. I felt like "a complete imposter . . . never before having worked using my hands, with the integrated presence of my body and mind, as my tools." But I also felt that, for me, this way of working "was guiding me to my own inner wisdom that could connect to that of every person whose life I touched in this way."
Making things happen with your hands as part of your presence in the world is a creative way of being that can also be professional. Our hands put us in touch with our primal ability to make things that can be both useful and beautiful, and let us explore the range of our creativity.
So I was intrigued when I read "Magic in the Making"— an article about Stanford mechanical engineering professor, David Beach, who, in the early 1970's, transformed the Stanford Student Shops ("shop class," as it was known in high school) into the Product Realization Lab (PRL). Having worked on the Hewlett Packard factory line before getting his master's degree at Stanford, Beach knew he could work with his hands. But he didn't know he could combine his hands' skill in making objects with the creative experience to bring forth innovative solutions for a wide span of societal needs.
At the beginning, he didn't even know how to teach at this level. He didn't know how to help students who'd never had hands-on experience with different materials learn to have fun and be creative with these materials. He didn't yet know how to work with students on the big picture of what they were doing, on how to interweave design and manufacturing. But the "magic" and the "wisdom" he learned about the process of creating with his welding tools led him to success with this "timeless" new way to work.
And now, the PRL is in hot demand on the campus. Working with the hands and with the mind together is now the new white-collar way to go! Students from the PRL are being hired by Apple, Tesla, and Google. They are also working to help meet worldwide societal needs, such as creating low-cost medical devices (e.g., burn rescue tools) and more effective groundwater drilling tools for developing countries.
Plus, there's the pure joy and confidence students experience in "the feeling of finally making things." As one graduate student states, "Everybody talks about ideas and invention . . . but the ability to immediately turn [them] into something is incredibly empowering."