Dirty Hands & Tired Bodies Make Stronger Business Minds

Ed Marsh | Sep 2, 2022

Tl;dr - If you decide to hire labor to perform physical tasks, and rationalize that decision based on the value of your time and thought work exceeding the cost of hiring, you're contributing to social decay and business mediocrity. Sweat and dirt connect us through common human experiences, and help us appreciate complex and nuanced systems. This in turn improves business decisions and performance.

A Physical vs. Intellectual Divide

NB - This is a philosophical rant, admittedly based on opinion and anecdote. 

We're socially bifurcated.

We can argue interminably about whether bifurcation is founded on race, politics, gender, geography, etc. - and we'll fail to reach an agreement.

That could be proof that indeed some immutable or acquired attribute is the source of the bifurcation.

Alternatively, it could be proof that the cause is elsewhere.

I believe it's the latter, and my theory is that our bifurcation into groups of those who do "mind" work (a laptop class) vs. those who do "hand" work is both degrading social cohesiveness and business results.

Here's the proverbial 2X4 between the eyes.

If you hire someone to cut your grass, shovel your snow, cut and stack your wood, clean your abode, or do other simple, "unskilled" manual labor tasks, you're part of the problem.

Let's pause for quick caveats. Some people are elderly or physically limited. Some tasks require modest technical skills (sweating a pipe joint, wiring a 3-way switch, replacing brakes on your car.) Others require permits and licenses or particular unique instruments. I'm not necessarily discussing those. I refer to work that you don't want to do because it's hot/cold, dirty, mundane or boring. Tasks which you've traded cash to have done to provide yourself leisure, or justified based on your ability to "create greater value" by investing that time in pursuit of other activities.

That's a social problem because the implication is that there are many people (those who do, or aspire to do those tasks) whose time and potential contributions are less valuable than yours. That's an aristocratic attitude that divides us socially and robs many of the virtuous benefits of physical labor which is inherently honorable.

There's a bigger business implication, and admittedly my theory here is a bit more tenuous.

I believe that it's killing creativity and creating channeled thinking. Here's why.

When you embrace tasks that are very different from those for which you're vocationally responsible it creates a deeper understanding of the complexity of systems and the contributions of others. It forces you to research and learn new things if you seek to improve. And it requires that you take ownership of outcomes.  Perhaps most importantly it forces abstractions to collide with reality.

Physical Labor Connects Abstract Theory to Reality

There are a shocking number of people who believe our meat and vegetables miraculously appear in grocery stores. The farmers, ranchers, fertilizer and feed plant workers, slaughterhous supervisors, diesel truck mechanics, drivers, refrigeration technicians and other critical roles are simply transparent, or rather in an increasing number of cases simply unknown to consumers.

In a few scant generations we've transformed from a society where people performing these roles lived, worshipped and bowled shoulder to shoulder as citizen peers of those who owned the grocery stores and performed administrative tasks - to a society where many are not only disconnected from, but fundamentally ignorant of, the people and work that are behind the panoply of colors, flavors and products in the Whole Foods.

There are many among us who sincerely and naively believe that the power required to charge EVs simply appears from the ether. This enables the dopamine hit of virtue and sanctimony to which many seem addicted. And it demonstrates the irrational disconnect between the hard, tiring, dirty reality of coal and uranium mining, natural gas pipeline maintenance, and lonely third shift work day in and day out on the one hand- and those who luxuriate in the output with little awareness of the inputs on the other.

The disconnect is so profound that one must wonder whether many of the proponents of "living wage" proposals and those who advocate most publicly and ardently for the "working class", actually do so to assuage subconscious guilt and discomfort stemming from the recognition that they take advantage of those who work by hand.

But back to the implications to the business.

I sense increasing disconnects between abstract theory and reality of top line revenue growth strategies and actual performance.

Boards and executives are too far removed from the actual realities of engagement with prospects and buyers and reassure themselves that orders they receive (vs. win) validate their passive approaches. Marketing thinks that delivering something to sales that they've arbitrarily labeled an SQL (sales qualified lead) checks their box so they can turn to their Postmates delivery and Netflix. Sales increasingly relies on reorders and lacks the skills, courage and work ethic to really create projects and penetrate new accounts. And customer service simply waits for inquiries and "checks the box" of one call resolution without working energetically and creatively to help customers avoid problems and extract greater efficiency from their operations.

And yet each of these groups feels that their thought work and hours staring at a computer fulfill all that's required of them. Like wholesome food simply appearing in the Trader Joe's cooler, revenue simply appears because they put in the hours.

In many ways this isn't new. Socrates told Phaedrus "You see, I am fond of learning. Now the country places and the trees won't teach me anything, and the people in the city do." (translations vary)

The industrial marketer, for instance, knows little of the executives' battles to secure talent and raw materials or to navigate regulatory burdens. (S)he also is blissfully ignorant of the misery of hours of cold calls that sales should make, or the challenges customer service faces balancing inventory vs. availability.

Yet I sense it's different today. There used to be a recognition that there were important contributions made by others even though there was friction. Today that recognition is largely missing, sometimes driven by simple ignorance and in other cases the product of condescension.

Today it's perversely enlightened to be myopic and self-satisfied. It's common to be unaware and unconcerned about the hard work that's required to do one's own job much less others', or the different skills and the systemic complexity of revenue growth.

Does physical labor resolve all the ills of mankind or today's hyperkinetic workplace? Of course not.

However, experiencing physical discomfort and embracing tasks that could be inexpensively foisted upon others does foster character and appreciation of the work of others and the range of labor, knowledge, skills and wisdom required to drive seemingly simple outcomes which we take for granted.

Get your hands dirty. Sweat. Be physically tired and sore from something besides a virtual reality exercise class.

Physical labor is virtuous and will embue your thought work with a perspective that will yield important results.