Leigh, a 45-year-old surface grinder entering his 16th year working steel in Hamilton, Ontario (aka Canada’s “Steel City”), takes enormous pride in his work. “Manipulating a piece of warped, uneven metal to a perfectly flat parallel piece with a mirror finish is very rewarding,” he tells me.
It isn’t exactly easy work, though. Leigh opens his shop at 7 a.m. every morning and spends the next nine hours grinding raw pieces of metal into smooth blades that can cut steel. It’s excruciatingly boring work, yet requires intense focus. “We work in thousandths of an inch, grinding blades to be thinner than a human hair, but it requires a lot of patience,” Leigh explains. “There’s also a lot of responsibility since the piece of metal could be worth thousands.”
The repetitiveness of the work wears on Leigh’s wrists, and at the end of the day, he’s covered in stone and metal dust, oil and a “sludge” mixture of the three “that becomes the consistency of wet cement.”
Needless to say, Leigh’s hard work fits the blue-collar (and very literal) definition of the word “grind” — a term that in recent years has been co-opted by tech entrepreneurs and social media influencers, with their endless obsession with “rising and grinding” and creating the kind of “hustle porn” that will keep such grinding going long after the initial rising occurs.
But while this new class of worker gets all the attention (and hogs all the spotlight), Leigh and his brethren simply keep, well, grinding.
There are several types of grinding professions, each requiring varying levels of skill. Dawson, a general machinist in Oregon, is a surface grinder. That is, once pieces of raw metal have been either cut by tool-and-cutter grinders or shaped by cylindrical grinders, Dawson grinds and polishes those pieces down to specific measurements within .001 of an inch.
“Most people hate grinding because it’s fairly boring, and it’s a very unrecognized job,” Dawson explains. “No one ever says, ‘Man, I really appreciate the machinist that ground the gears within a thousandth of an inch so my car doesn’t fall apart,’ but I don’t mind it. It can be super satisfying. Watching a part that was black and oxidized turn into a perfectly square and shiny piece is pretty cool.”
Bill, a 45-year-old who’s been in the grinding business for 16 years, rises around 4:30 a.m. to be in the shop and have his CNC grinding machines up and running within an hour. “After that, you need a lot of patience, because some jobs run for a few days,” he tells me. (He, too, ends most days covered in dust and grime.) “But I love the work that I do — I get to take a drawing on paper and create a tool that will be used to make an end product that might go into a car, an aircraft or even a person.”
Maybe it’s because of all this grinding that Bill had never heard the phrase “rise and grind” before. But he says, “I gotta say, I like it. To me, it’s literally what I do every day during the work week, and I feel blessed to be able to do my job and ‘rise and grind’ daily.”
Leigh, on the other hand, remains more protective of the term. “It’s only valid for tradesmen and laborers,” he argues. “In my opinion, it just doesn’t fit in an office setting.”
Maybe, then, it’s time for skilled tradespeople to take back the buzzwords that Silicon Valley has appropriated from them. As my colleague Magdalene Taylor recently wrote, “[Manual labor] may not have the glitz of start-ups claiming to be the next big thing in retail, or pushing to ‘disrupt’ the gardening industry, but that’s part of what makes them so lucrative: They’re not revolutionizing anything — they’re just doing the work that already needs to be done.”
They could use the help — also literally. Matt, a 37-year-old in Maine who owns his own tool-and-cutter grinding shop, says there’s a “major lack of new talent coming up [in the industry].” “In my area, we literally cannot find bodies to run machines,” he explains. “One of our customers just offered to double our workload, and we simply don’t have the people to be able to do it all.”
That, of course, makes the industry an endangered species, no matter the amount of rising and grinding its current practitioners do. But that’s also why their legacy being the pioneers of one of hustle porn’s favorite terms doesn’t bother Dawson in the least. “There’s something about the grittiness of the term that makes you feel compelled to go get something done,” he says. “Just to sit down and fuckin’ do it, no matter how dirty or tedious it is, because you know you’re going to end up with something great.”