Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
26 Jan

Musings on Specialization and Self-Sufficiency in the Modern World

specializationEvery once in a while I come across a quote that makes so much sense I can’t get it out of my head. Sometimes it reveals a new truth or illuminates a long-held one. Other times it makes good and plain something so logical, so sensible, so obvious that it’s like a slap upside the head. Such was my impression of this Robert A. Heinlein quote mentioned by a commenter on Mike Eades blog: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

I’m not intimately familiar with Mr. Heinlein’s work (although I read Stranger in a Strange Land and there is some dual meaning with my choice of Grok as our main character), but this quote has been on my mind for the last few months. It stands on its own, I think, for pondering the force of specialization in our society and individual lives.

The fact is, specialization is as much a product of the Neolithic Age as farming was. Ten thousand years ago we started eating new things but we also saw a major revamping of social structure and human labor. Hunter-gatherers (ancient and present) knew nothing of specialization. It’s inevitable that some folks in a band were better at certain things than others, but subsistence (and all the other basic necessities and pastimes of life) was the stuff of community obligation. Everyone contributed at some point or, well, you better go find yourself some other band to take advantage of.

As band oriented as hunter-gatherers were, they were uncompromising individualists of a unique sort. (This interest in personal autonomy is a common reason many current hunter-gatherers stick with their foraging lifestyle instead of joining the surrounding agricultural and urban settings.) There was flux in hunter-gatherer band structure. People often came and went with the formation or dissolution of mating relationships, a falling out with other members, or with the natural shifts of seasonal resources. Not everyone moved among groups, of course, but it happened. As long as you were fully and actively engaged in the band’s survival and community while you were there, it worked out for everyone.

This flux as well as the inherent risk of hunter-gatherer life meant no one could afford to put all his/her eggs in one basket. If a band had one person who made spearheads, they were pretty much screwed if that person up and left one day to marry the beauty in the next band over or if he got torn apart by a hungry predator. It was crucial that each individual know the skills of survival – hunting strategies, terrain familiarity, plant cataloging, shelter construction, weather reading, cooking, child rearing, etc. They knew it as necessity and embraced it as cultural value.

Enter the Neolithic Age, with its focus on settled life, stored supplies, and larger, denser communities, and you have the start of a whole new ball game. Suddenly they were feeding and protecting a pretty massive group of people (relatively speaking for their time). Human social structure needed roles it never did before. Enter specialization. As Matt Ridley writes in The Agile Gene, we’ve been in a spiral ever since – a continuing interdependent cycle “whereby specialization increases productivity, which increases prosperity, which allows technological invention, which further increases specialization.” Is the result progress? Yes and no – no and yes? Ridley quotes Robert Wright: “‘Human history involve[s] the playing of ever more numerous, ever larger and ever more elaborate non-zero-sum games.’” That’s one way to look at it.

Anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt suggests our shift from hunter-gatherer life and settlement in large communities has changed the way we fulfill our need for what he calls “affect hunger,” the genetically based instinct we have to seek and create connection with others. For adults, Goldschmidt suggests, this hunger plays out two ways – “by belonging and by performance.” The Neolithic Revolution and resulting specialization tipped the scale toward performance, he says. Our “peer group” is no longer our intimately known and reciprocally committed band members. It’s more our “occupational colleagues.” I enjoy and value my staff to be sure, but I don’t know how I feel about that idea….

Is all this a “zero sum game,” as Wright suggests? I don’t know about the sum totals themselves. On the one hand, I’m grateful for the innovation and variety that specialization has made possible. Yet, I also ponder what’s been lost.

The last two hundred years alone has ushered in mechanization and whole new layers of career specialization. We’re definitely rewarded these days for specializing – for finding (or creating) a niche so tight and rare – that we can soak it for all its worth. Sure, it’s good business practice – and for some lucky individuals their ultimate passion. I don’t begrudge people their innovation and right to earn a living the best way they know how. I do wonder if the larger cultural force, however, undermines something of individual well-being.

In the 19th Century, John Ruskin wrote about the difference between the traditional artisans who in part designed the structures they built and the “modern” masons whose job it was to lay bricks in the same uniform pattern. We’ve lost something of that autonomy – often on an individual basis and largely on a cultural level. Not to stand in the way of progress, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say something about it gives me pause.

It’s not just about our professional endeavors of course. Our ancestors and even grandparents practiced life skills and arts that are quickly going the way of specialization. For better and worse, we outsource many of the chores and talents that they did as routine. On the one hand, we can say it has freed us up to make other choices with our time. Except, I remember my older relatives having plenty of personal hobbies, and I’m not sure we really have (or at least recognize) much more free time than our grandparents did decades ago.

As for my own lifetime career picture, I’ve never designed and built a gothic church like Ruskin’s artisans, but I’ve had my share of variety. More than that, however, I’ve never felt hemmed in by my then-present job. Whatever I was doing for money at the time, I was always pursuing (by interest or flat-out necessity) other endeavors at home. I painted houses in my early days. I designed and made my own clothing for a while, made much of the furniture in my house at one point, acted as my own attorney (successfully), repaired my own cars, and built a restaurant (including the design and construction of a 60 foot salad bar that was refrigerated from underneath).

For me, everything I have done work-wise (or otherwise) has been a lesson in self-sufficiency as well as self-improvement. Although I occasionally cursed a few of the projects at the time, I love to look at my life now with the knowledge that there’s very little I couldn’t do if I really put my mind to it.

Sure, I also learned that I don’t love doing some of these things even though I can do them. It’s helped me prioritize my life and finances. Would I rather use my limited spare time building or fixing something as an expression of self-sufficiency or creativity? Sometimes. Or would I rather buy it or pay someone to fix it and then be in a position to use my time to play or do nothing simply because I now value that higher? Oftentimes, yes. That said, I’m not going to pay $9 for a mediocre serving of paleo jerky. I’m going to make it myself because, well, I like the result better and appreciate the fact I can do it for a fraction of the cost. Sometimes it’s about principle. Other times, it’s about simple preference. Good jerky, after all, is nothing to shake a stick at.

However, there are bigger themes here, I think. What does self-sufficiency mean to us? Although few of us would choose to make our lives alone in the wilderness, what about the pride and self confidence that comes with being able to do a whole mess of things – being a Jack or Jane of many trades or talents? Is that one of the (many) things that is leaving us feeling empty or unfulfilled in this age? How important is it to feel we can handle any situation life throws at us? A flat tire? A broken circuit or blown fuse or stopped toilet or downed Internet connection? A garden full of vegetables to be stored? A home full of children who need to be fed and clothed and cared for on a shoestring? A roof that needs replaced or a door that needs to be hung? How about a broken marriage, a lost job, an empty bank account? I’m wandering here, but I like the idea of an inner peace and calm that comes from being confident that we can handle anything and knowing that we are wired to be self-sufficient. As with many of CW’s messages, we can too often get caught up in the pattern that tells us we should just give in and specialize, be content and productive within set roles. Maybe it’s just the contrarian part of me coming out.

I guess in my world, this underscores the value of a true “liberal arts” and life education – which can start from formal education (e.g. college) but can also begin – and in either case – most richly unfolds within living itself, the design of one’s personal efforts, followed interests, and creative initiative. For my part, I’d say this. One fine day when I have my own grandchildren, I want to have a whole host of tricks up my sleeve – never ending activities, stories, and how-tos. If they want a treehouse, I like the fact I’ll have the knowhow – and the energy – to build it for them.

Thanks for reading today, everyone! Let me know what you think about specialization. When you look back on the things you’ve done in life (for money or love), what thoughts/lessons come to mind? How have certain jobs or hobbies changed you in ways only they could have?

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. One of the things I am (slowly) learning about life. It always feels better when you do it yourself. Now I know why, when my father would try and show me how to do something, he would just end up finishing the whole project himself, even if it was something I was tasked to do. As a procrastination addict, and a self proclaimed lazy a$$, learning self sufficiency has led me down a whole other path of fulfillment.

    Maureen wrote on January 26th, 2012
  2. Great post, as always. I think about this issue all the time, and I do think we all have a basic/genetic need to feel self sufficient. In general, I generally dislike outsourcing anything that I can do myself to someone else (though by necessity I must many times). Even worse, though, is when I have to outsource something because I lack the expertise, but know that I could develop it with a little time and effort…

    J Turknett wrote on January 26th, 2012
  3. An important distinction needs to be made. Wright argued that modernity had more NON-zero-sum games, not zero-sum. There is a world of difference. The former is where both parties benefit – i.e. something is created. The latter is where one party must take away what the other has, so one is made “better off,” but only at the expense of the other.

    I think the general topic is quite interesting. By and large though, specialization is what got us here – for good or ill. I think the most important lesson is to recognize both the blessings and burdens it provides, and then make personal decisions as to maximize the good and minimize the bad.

    Garik wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • well said! i completely agree.

      Becca wrote on January 26th, 2012
  4. I’ll add to that as a physician I’ve seen a disturbing and growing willingness to outsource clinical skills to machines, lab tests, etc. It drives me nuts if a piece of technology makes a diagnosis that could have been readily made at the bedside, but for many of my colleagues this doesn’t seem to matter. One reason why the physical exam is a dying art…

    J Turknett wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • Good for you! I see the same thing happening in the mental health field. More reliance on computerized testing and less development of clinician diagnostic skills.

      rarebird wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • This is so sad – glad to hear you are bucking the trend!

      Jess wrote on January 27th, 2012
    • I tried to be lazy and went to a popular pet food store’s vet close to my house. Without ever touching my bunny or even really looking at her — I was asked a series of questions and then the computer spit out a prescription for $500 worth of lab tests. I declined, paid what I had to — then drove the 45 minutes to a real vet and saved myself several hundred dollars.

      Ollie wrote on February 2nd, 2012
  5. Love this post! I’m glad that my dad taught me as a kid lots of skills. Woodworking, plumbing, sheet-rocking, (he thought he was the second coming of Bob Vila) and it’s been great. As a single woman who owns a house, it’s nice to know that I can fix most things myself without having to hire some handy-man to come do it for me. I’m also thankful that my maternal grandmother taught me how to crochet. I have many handmade items and I give some as gifts at times too. I recently bought a sewing machine and plan on experimenting with making clothes for myself (and I felt it would come in handy once I start losing weight from following TPB and have to take in some of my clothes!)

    I’m a big fan of always learning new skills and facts, and I am definitely a Jill of all trades and a master of none. :)

    Meg wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • I’m similar to you, in that my parents did a lot of work themselves around the house. I find that even if you don’t learn specific things, at least you know that it can be done. It takes the mystique away from these different tasks.

      Anyone can learn to do anything.

      Kat wrote on January 26th, 2012
  6. “I’m not intimately familiar with Mr. Heinlein’s work (although I certainly have heard of his books)…”

    Well, he coined and popularized the term Grok, in his book “Stranger in a Strange Land”. :)

    I expect you’d love his stuff, it’s right up your alley.

    Tuck wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • @Tuck, clarified further, thanks. “Intimately” familiar versus “familiar.”

      Mark Sisson wrote on January 26th, 2012
  7. Excellent point! Everyone is responsible for his own survival. Yes, you can rely on the division of labor to do lots of things for you, but does that mean we should not be *able* to take care of ourselves?

    I think it is just simple prudence to be able to provide for yourself, even if you aren’t required to on a daily basis.

    Neal McSpadden wrote on January 26th, 2012
  8. Mark, I am LOVING this post. I remember when I was 16 years old and had my first flat tire. I asked my Dad to change it for me. He flat out told me “No” and then proceeded to show me how to do it myself. Now that I’m an adult, I have several friends who are amazed that I know how to change my own tire, and don’t immediately think about calling AAA. Since I now live in the city, I have limited ability to grow my own food, but I have a small balcony garden every summer where I grow my own tomatoes and peppers…and I can them myself when they are ready to harvest. I much prefer doing things myself. I feel more useful when I have a little job to do to better the health or welfare of my family. And knowing how to change my own tire saves time, money, and reduces personal risk to myself.

    Penady wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • My husband taught me to how to change my tire in my early 20′s and I’m thankful he did. I had my first flat a year or two later and was able to put the spare on and limp home. It was incredibly empowering to do it myself. So many people don’t know how to do this simple little thing!

      Jessica wrote on January 26th, 2012
      • Over the summer I got a flat tire and had to wait 3 hours for AAA to come help me out.

        Think its time for me to learn!

        Becca wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • I used to own a Beetle and while my husband was in Korea I had to fix the dang thing myself.
      I did my own tune-up, oil change, fixed a hole in the gas tank, did my own brakes and belts and timing etc…

      A friend of mine at the time owned a Beetle, too, and I did her tune-up, oil change etc, too. I ended up rebuilding an engine block in the end :)

      My husband came back from Korea and he’s been taking over every single thing that needs fixin’. I’ve gotten lazy and totally dependent on him to do shit for me…not good.

      I should make an effort again to become self-sufficient, but my husband bitches at me for wanting to mow the lawn, he doesn’t want the neighbors to see the wife mowing the lawn while he is home…

      Issabeau wrote on January 26th, 2012
      • That sounds familiar. I’ve always been a very capable and hands-on female; my dad taught me to do stuff and bought me tools of my own when I asked for them. My first husband was useless and I took care of everything around the house. Then I remarried, to a carpenter, and it’s much easier to let him handle the home repair. I do the cooking and sewing because, uh, I like it and I’m better at it than he is. But we both ‘assist’ on each other’s projects/chores, and it works out.

        He’d probably be delighted if I’d mow the lawn, though. I told him the flower beds and garden are my domain; I will rake leaves but I hate mowing.

        taihuibabe wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • I’ve known how to change a tire since I was 16 and got a driver’s license. I’ve had a flat tire three times in the 34 years since then and never had to change it myself. Someone always pulled over to do it for me as soon as they saw me take the jack out of the trunk. LOL!

      Gingerzingi wrote on January 26th, 2012
      • Nothing men like less than seeing a woman on the side of a freeway changing a tire. I had three cars pull over to save me from changing one once. But I have done it myself other times and was amazed when I had a boyfriend who hadn’t learned.

        Kate wrote on January 26th, 2012
        • In my experience they’re not too thrilled about women driving standard transmission cars, either. :)

          Charlotte wrote on January 26th, 2012
        • I hear you about the standard cars thing! I can’t wait to get my standard pickup :)

          I was on a first date recently and mentioned that I needed to get my car registered to my new state. He said he’d change the license plates when I got the new ones. Didn’t ask if I wanted him to- just assumed that I needed to have it done for me. Thanks but no thanks- I prefer someone who’s default assumption is that I could do it myself. Particularly when it comes to a whopping two screws.

          Drssgchic wrote on January 27th, 2012
    • There is usually a way to stay in touch with nature even in a city. Roof top gardens, balcony gardens, etc. I am definitely with you there. There is also a body of research on our human need to engage with nature – key term “biophilia”.

      About changing flat tires….while its good to know how to do that, its also often safer not to. I am often on road trips – usually across country – by myself and have a set of safety guidelines that seem to work well. My version of safe self-sufficiency in a modern world.

      IF we can pull completely off the road (not on the shoulder) out of traffic – and IF we are in a well lighted highly visible area – and IF we have the right set of tools and fitness level – THEN it might be a good idea to change our own tire.

      If not, then calling a service like AAA and staying inside the locked car is probably best. To increase our personal safety we can also place a sign with large lettering on both front and back wind shield notifying passers-by that help has been called and is on the way. That allows concerned citizens to go on their way without concern and also encourages criminals to seek an easier target.

      rarebird wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • My father did the same for me. Years ago when I was working in a bookstore a woman knocked on the door before opening and asked if there was a man around to change her flat tire. I was stunned. There were a number of other women opening that morning and I asked if they knew how and none did. I marched everyone out to the parking lot and made them learn. The scariest part was that the woman had a stroller in the trunk when I got her jack and spare out. What if she had had her baby with her and there was no one to change her tire for her?

      Sandy wrote on January 26th, 2012
  9. Great topic. My husband and I talk frequently about self-sufficiency and how much our culture has lost by not learning from our parents, or by things just not being passed down. The rush and crush of conventional living has made so many things, even simple things like cooking, difficult for some. Personally, we are rediscovering food and cooking techniques every day. As with some of the previous comments, we value being able to do something ourselves. We may not be widely skilled in everything but we actively look for opportunities to learn and we hope that if ever our skills were called to desperate need, that we would know enough to survive. It’s something I think many Americans don’t spend much time thinking about.

    Jessica wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • Our family looks for opportunities to learn new skills too. When my husband botched a dry wall job in our house, I learned how to drywall (mud, tape, sand etc.). I actually enjoy doing it on a small-scale.

      For me, much of my skill was taught by my father who was a finishing carpenter and emphasized the pride in doing a job properly. We learned early on how to complete carpentry jobs using hand-tools so that we understood how to use power tools properly. I still, sometimes, rely on hand tools for a real sense of mastery.

      I love being able to do many things (sew, cook, gardening, home construction, build bicycles) which give me a sense of pride. There really isn’t anything sweeter than looking at a job well done and feeling really good. Unless you’ve just watched your child/children make/build something for the first time. :-)

      Happycyclegirl wrote on January 26th, 2012
      • Amen!

        All too often we rob others (often our children) of the opportunity to gain a sense of mastery – or others rob us. We do “for” rather than teach by doing “with”.

        We can see what harm “self esteem” divorced from actual achievement has caused by looking at how “self esteem” has been misapplied (IMO) in the US educational system.

        I’m all for cooperation. However, while competition gets a bad rap – and often deservedly so – it does have its upside. We don’t have to compete with others in a destructive way – but can challenge ourselves (and others) to improve skills,etc.

        rarebird wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • You’re right about the cooking thing. I have many friends (one of them being hte wife of a Doctor) that barely knows how to boil an egg. She hates to cook because everything turns out to taste like sh*t, well duh…
      My sister-in-law manages to turn a deer steak into a brick you could build a house with, doesn’t know how to spice things so she uses the plastic pre-seasoned roast bags …. YUCK. My husbands entire family (even his mother) bake out of cartons and boxes, “just add water” deals. It’s disgusting. Nobody knows how to make things from scratch anymore.

      Issabeau wrote on January 26th, 2012
  10. That is my favorite quote and has inspired me to learn and do things that most modern men don’t seem to do anymore. I think it helped me stave off meterosexuality and helped me get founded in adulthood.
    I also believe a self sufficient people will lead to a peaceful people, since their is maturity and wisdom in it.
    Great article on something that I have been thinking about lately, with what is going on in this country and the world at large.

    steve wrote on January 26th, 2012
  11. I read that in Heinlein’s “Time Enough For Love” many years ago and have thought about it at various times since then. The conclusion I’ve come to is a person should have one speciality that benefits both the person and society, and one or more abilities they aren’t specialized in but can do.

    A related thought on this is a person should never stop learning. This increases their specialization and gives them more abilities.

    Joe Hughes wrote on January 26th, 2012
  12. What a great post. I completely agree with your statement on the liberal arts I was well on the way into a PhD but just couldn’t commit to that level of specialization, so I quit. It was just getting narrower and narrower, the scope of people around me and the time I spent getting too focused onto one little thing. That said, I’m glad we have specialists in medicine and science, because without them we would know so much less about how the body – and the world – works. We wouldn’t be having this conversation, in fact.

    But I think specialization can become an innovation inhibitor, too, by excluding people who think outside the box. Where I live now, in Switzerland, it’s virtually impossible to do anything without a certificate or specialized degree. That’s one great thing about the US. If you have the energy and the intelligence, it’s possible to make a go of pretty much anything.

    I like being able to do a lot of different things. I’d like to learn to repair a car, and sail a boat.

    One book that speaks to this loss of self-sufficiency is Shop class as soulcraft, by Matthew B. Crawford. He argues that our children need to learn to DO things, fix things, build things, and not just use their brains all the time in school. It’s part of being a whole human being.

    Gydle wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • Well, Gydle – you know what they say “PhD” stands for? Piled higher and deeper! LOL

      rrustad wrote on January 26th, 2012
  13. Hobbies and random things that we do throughout our lives have a great impact on our profession, skills, and aptitudes. Learning more encourages our mind to see issues from more perspectives and resolve them with ingenuity.

    Paul Alexander wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • Tapping into the wisdom of Charlie Munger’s mental models!

      Primal Texas wrote on January 26th, 2012
  14. My personal mantra is “How hard could it be?” I mean, if lots of other human beings have been successfully doing whatever it is I am contemplating doing, I just repeat the above to myself and plunge in.

    The beauty of the internet is being able to find instructions on how to do or fix almost anything you can imagine. How do you make kombucha? Kimchee? What’s wrong with my dishwasher and how do I fix it? How do I reset the water level on my washing machine? How do I tune up my lawnmower? How do I sandblast the paint off these old radiators? These are just a few of the recent ‘do it yourself’ tasks I have undertaken (Successfully!) with the help of the internet.

    So, specialization (computer techno geeks) led to the internet, which has led to the ability to be more self sufficient.

    Barb wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • I hear “How hard can it be?” and immediately think of Jeremy Clarkson and the British version of Top Gear, where that phrase invariably is followed by hilarity and mayhem.

      I therefore rather frightened myself when I caught myself saying it this past summer standing in the door section of Home Depot and finding out that the $95 screen/storm door was going to cost me over $300 thanks to my victorian house with strange door sizes. And I need two. Of different non-standard sizes. So this summer the plan is to buy some good tools and start playing. Even if I botch the first one or two completely it won’t cost as much as buying two custom doors.

      I mean really, how hard should it be to build a basic door shaped wood frame with one or two cross pieces and add some screen cloth, some hinges, and a door latch? Really?

      Nancy wrote on January 26th, 2012
      • For what it’s worth we ended up, in our 80-yo house, simply putting a “block” above the screen door. We were able to purchase a pre-made screen door that was the right width, but too short (storm door actually, where you raise and lower the window) – we put a wooden facade on the screen door side, painted it, and now from the outside you really can’t tell that the inside door is 4″ taller unless you know to look – and saved about 50% on the cost of the new door. Hope that info helps as well.

        Kerstin wrote on January 26th, 2012
        • Sounds useful, but our problem is the opposite, standard doors are 80″ and ours are =~77.5″ and =~75.5. Not to mention being 31″ wide, when the standards are 30″ and 32″, making the 30 too narrow to shim, but the 32 too wide to fudge in. (At least the ceilings are a reasonable height – upstairs they aren’t even 7′! My eldest loves the place, but did ask if it was built by or for midgets.)

          So for now, I’m just planning to teach myself how to make a basic old fashioned screen door. And after that I get to rebuild the shed!

          Nancy wrote on January 27th, 2012
  15. This is why I think, should civilization collapse, I would be screwed.
    I have no practical skills, and those things I’ve tried I’ve been very bad at. And I have no particular desire to invest the time and energy required to get good. I’m content to provide employment for someone who is already good. I don’t think the risk of civilization collapse in my lifetime is high enough to change my mind.

    Ely wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • Also, Robert Heinlein may have been a great sci-fi writer but he’s also a misogynist jingoist jerk.

      Ely wrote on January 26th, 2012
      • I wouldn’t be too hard on ol’ Robert. He was a man of his time, true, but he was much more forward thinking than many of his contemporaries. (And I am not a Heinlein fan.)

        taihuibabe wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • “Prepare for the worst and hope for the best” is an old saying that applies here, I think. The collapse of industrial civilization in our lifetimes is a very real possibility. Just because something is hard or you’re no good at it is no reason to become complacent. No offense intended…..

      Jason wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • Exactly what I was thinking. I’ve always wanted to learn basic survival skills should everything collapse. I know how to make sure you stay alive if you hurt yourself or become ill but make a campfire out of my surroundings? Not a clue. Make a tent, weapon, fox trap? Find my way back home? no, no and no!

      mande wrote on January 27th, 2012
      • There’s a ton of resources available to learn these things. Check out books by Tom Brown Jr. (field guides) and Thomas Elpel. They are primitive skills based and a good place to start……

        Jason wrote on January 27th, 2012
  16. Brilliant!!!

    As a high school social studies teacher, I try to show my students the virtues of being well-rounded “renaissance men (and women!)”

    Unfortunately, I do teach at an academy/tech school. While giving students specific skills to learn beginning in 9th grade has its advantages, it seems like we are also limiting their exposure to other opportunities.

    I often ask them “Why cannot we be an athlete AND an artist? A poet AND and auto-mechanic?” Who puts us in these boxes, and why do we allow ourselves to be put into them?

    Thanks for sharing, Mark!

    Emily wrote on January 26th, 2012
  17. From making my own laundry soap (thanks wellnessmama.com) to curing my migraines (by going paleo/primal)I have been laughed at a lot this year by people around me. Some things I have tried and they are not worth my effort some things are actually easier/cheaper/healthier to make than buy at the store. I like learning and even better I like teaching. It is so sad that some people these days are just unwilling to learn. Love the posts Mark they are as essensial as my coconut milk spiked coffee.

    Rochelle wrote on January 26th, 2012
  18. I completely agree with this. I have a goal, that once I lose 150 lbs I will learn how to hunt using a hand made bow and arrow, and spear and atlatl. It’s just this desire that I have, to know how to hunt and prepare my own food.

    Amanda wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • Same here. I don’t want to actually kill something until I desperately need to (starving, no money), because I believe in leaving wildlife alone and for the wolves and bears.
      But I’d like to learn the skill, get to know my wilderness and know when and where the fish spawn.

      I’d love to just buy an RV and travel the US and Canada and live off the land, but my husband will never go for it.

      Issabeau wrote on January 26th, 2012
  19. I make a good a living from being a self-employed ‘specialized generalist’. Basically, my ability to turn my hand to just about anything has created a lifestyle where I can contract to organisations doing all manner of things – from strategic planning, communication to graphic design – while ‘farming’ a few acres of land and pursuing my love of art. I spent 20-odd years worrying that I hadn’t ‘specialised’ in anything and wasn’t an expert in any particualr field. Turns out my journey through many different career, study and hobby paths over the years has set me up well for life. I don’t know what I’ll be doing some weeks, but I’ve never had to go looking for work – it seems to find me (and yes, I have a mortgage and family to worry about). Never would have imagined for a minute this is how I’d be living my life! Going primal has made the journey even richer.

    Andrea wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • The mathematician, Benoit Mandelbrot, father of fractal geometry, said that we need “nomads by choice” who migrate from field to field bringing fertile ideas with them.

      rarebird wrote on January 26th, 2012
  20. I’ve totally mused on a lot of the same ideas recently as well. I think it started after seeing a guest on Colbert Report (i think) who talked about a computer mouse and how there is no one person in the world who knows how to build one from scratch; its all a lot of distributed work. Oh wait yeah it was a guy on the colbert report, I remember he was talking about how he did a project to completely make a toaster from scratch, like smelting the metal and eveything.

    Anyway, I think my musings on the subject have led me to conclude that SOME specialization is a good thing, it is part of our advantage of living and working in groups. However, I feel that our modern society has taken such specialization ludicrously far, and we are so far off one end of the scale that we cant even SEE the scale anymore.

    I think its just one more example of us sacrificing the strength of “group” and “community” for the golden idol of “systems,” which some people think is the same thing but it really, really, really is not.

    cTo wrote on January 26th, 2012
  21. Specialization is the act of giving away the power to control your own fate by voluntarily limiting your knowledge & experience.

    cancerclasses wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • True to a point, CC. Many of us must “specialize” to make our living but work to be as diverse and self-sufficient as possible away from our career to, as one poster put it, prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

      Justin wrote on January 26th, 2012
  22. I’ve been a Heinlein fan for a long time, it’s cool to see one of my favorite quotes in a modern context. One thing I noticed is that so many people don’t have hobbies. People find themselves with free time, and they feel lost. Over the weekends, we get people wandering through the stores, for no other reason than that they have nothing to do at home, and the stores are a warm (or cool depending on the season) place to stretch their legs. I can’t complain too loud, their impulse purchases pay my wages, but I wonder about the future. I’ve heard of children who are unable to use the fine dexterity of their hands because theier only play is to push buttons. I fear for the future of humanity.

    cndnrose wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • This.

      taihuibabe wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • I’m a high school senior and I have been thinking about this so much, especially when choosing my major. My mom was a single parent and she did everything herself, from fixing our old chevy pickup to putting herself through school and managing her own landscaping business. In the summer I live with my uncle and he knows about everything, ask how a turbo works, he’ll tell you, ask how American culture is different from Chinese, he’ll tell you, ask about girls etc… They are well rounded people and naturally I’ve learned how to be self sufficient from them over the years. But It seems that in order to make it in society I’m supposed to specialize in a tiny fragment of the things that I know. I’m supposed to take one thing and be the best at it. But what if the one thing I choose doesn’t work out? Entire Industries are shutting down all across the U.S. and I feel like I’m being forced to put all my eggs in one basket. And we’re all like this, what if a war or some catastrophic event happened that led to a world without order? With countless people that don’t know how to change a tire or shoot a gun, we don’t stand a chance.

      jculbyj wrote on February 10th, 2014
  23. It’s so funny how we’re generally made to choose one specific college major to learn what will turn into a specific skill set…then a lot of people end up in a career that has nothing to do with their major.

    ryan wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • Totally. I don’t know why people look down on a liberal arts education. I got an undergrad BUS (create-your-own degree) in Interdisciplinary Writing by combining Journalism, Film, English, and Creative Writing. Guess what I do now? Write across many disciplines (blog, freelance articles, web content, marketing, poetry). Some of it pays, some of it doesn’t, but I do it all.

      Karen P. wrote on January 26th, 2012
  24. I take it upon myself to learn at least working knowledge, if not more, about everything that is relevant to me. As well as many things that are not directly, and just interest me. Like biology, anthropology and physics.
    I pick up things pretty damn quick. Schooling was never the best way for me to learn, plus I was very broke.
    I know 3 languages (English, Maori, French) and i’m learning a fourth (German). I can get by pretty well in maybe 3 others.
    When you have the internet and a functioning brain, who needs university? :P
    I know how to do most repairs on everything I own. I don’t think this is superfluous as much as necessary!

    Nion wrote on January 26th, 2012
  25. Self-sufficiency -it is scary to me the number of young men and women (12 and up) that have no idea how to change a flat, maintain a vehicle, change an air filter, repair a malfunctioning toilet (and that’s NOT jiggling the handle), safely handle a firearm, or even play stick and ball sports, etc. HUGE parent fail!

    Justin wrote on January 26th, 2012
  26. I’ve often thought about this very topic as it relates to emergencies like a zombie apocalypse. What modernity strives for is things (i.e.) have a 72 hour kit on hand in case of an emergency where the ancients and their primitive fathers strived for was wisdom (i.e.) know how to get food and water from your local environment. To put it simpler our primitive ancestors knew how to live and we know how to collect things.

    Nick wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • One of the former editors of a major homesteading magazine wrote a column every month about self-sufficiency and how you can do everything yourself — until he needed a double bypass.

      oxide wrote on January 26th, 2012
      • That’s why having a family is so important.

        jculbyj wrote on February 10th, 2014
  27. My resolution this year is to learn at least one skill per month that will keep me and any companions alive and well if I am ever forced to go “naked into the wilderness”. Probably next year as well. This month I will be learning to make fire by hand with materials that can be found in any wooded environment (I’m already a bit behind, but getting down to it this weekend!). Other skills I am planning on diving into before the year is out include:

    -knapping of basic stone tools: knife, awl, handaxe, scraper, chisel, etc.
    -shaping of wood, bone, antler, etc.
    -construction and use of throwing spear, atlatl, atlatl dart
    -brain-tanning buckskin and furs
    -construction of weather-tight shelters
    -construction of basic clothing
    -preparation and use of cordage (plant fibers, sinew)

    You get the idea. Once I feel I have learned enough, I may even try a (controlled) experiment and see if I can actually go live in the woods starting with nothing but my body, basic clothes and maybe a few days’ worth of food. My goal is to be able to live in relative comfort indefinitely even if civilization somehow vanished. The sense of security in knowing you could just melt into the woods if you ever really had to will be worth all the work a hundred times over IMO.

    Maybe I’m a crazy person.

    Uncephalized wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • Wow, that’s quite a project! Yes, you are crazy. Crazy like a fox.

      Karen P. wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • sounds like the kids book “my side of the mountain”…

      Hopeless Dreamer wrote on January 26th, 2012
      • Well, no plans to befriend any falcons, but you never know I guess.

        Uncephalized wrote on January 27th, 2012
  28. I like the tone of this article, however in todays world if you want to be successful(my definition of success is making alot of money while doing something you are passionate about), you have to put in your time aka Specializing.
    I spent alot of my life learning things for a little while and then jumping ship, where did that land me …a 40 hour work week punching the clock. Alot of books emphasize this theme as well “talent is overrated” “think and grow rich”

    Matt wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • I agree. I was always a jack of all trades… and people comment on my interesting life. I have well less of a retirement than I would have if I hadn’t “wasted time” as a flight attendant, helicopter mechanic, and “Gaslight Girl” back in the day.

      However, I had cancer just about 5 years ago, and during the time I was waiting to find out how badly off I was, I felt awfully happy about the life I’d lived. Now that it looks like I’m going to be just swell, though, sometimes wish I’d been a genius of one specialty! I dunno… I’m doing pretty well. I’ll pull it off yet. (I’ll use my varied skills to dumpster dive when I’m old and unusually healthy.)

      Joy Beer wrote on January 27th, 2012
  29. I love that quote and try to live it. I have a PhD in physics, but it is just an outgrowth of my love of the natural world. I also am heavily involved in Boy Scouts, and we really teach to this quote there. I read in another science fiction book somewhere that “you can learn about 80% of what there is to know about a subject in two years; at that point it is time to move on.” I have tended to do that and am rarely bored.

    Damien Gray wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • I am interested in knowing where that thought came from if you can find the book.

      Joe Hughes wrote on January 26th, 2012
  30. Great, thought-provoking article. Thanks!

    Mark Cruden wrote on January 26th, 2012
  31. I am someone who HAS to know how things work. I have a curiosity that makes me climb the walls if I don’t satisfy it. I am also a person who tries to be as self sufficient as I can. I do historical re-enactment with an emphasis on the everyday skills and the arts. I can do most forms of needlework and spinning and weaving. I can do most forms of hand woodworking. I do basic stonecarving and bone carving. I practice plant indentification and woodslore. My job training is in Instrumentation which involves electronics, mechanics and some programming. I also backpack and am working on skills to learn ocean kayaking. I have way too many hobbies-LOL

    Ingvildr wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • You and I have a lot in common – including the nearly insatiable intellectual curiosity and way too many hobbies! LOL Would we actually have it any other way if we could?

      rarebird wrote on January 26th, 2012
      • Not on your life. It’s way too much fun. Even when I have trouble getting to sleep when my brain won’t stop spinning out new ideas. Life hasn’t always worked in my favor, so I’m hoping to get back to university when my son is in school full time and finish up my bachelors.

        Ingvildr wrote on January 27th, 2012
  32. I relate to this. I needed a new carborator for my Chevy Nova when I was 16. I didn’t have the money for it, but I did have the money for a book. I successfully rebuilt the carborator in 3 days. I hate everyone’s cooking, so I do it myself. No one hates my cooking when I cook for them. I have a pair of socks that need to be darned. I’m going to ask my stepmother to show me how to do it myself instead of asking her to do it. I’m not very good for bolstering the economy. Heinlein is a big influence on how I think though.

    “I will any rules that you feel necessary to you freedom. I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tollerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.”
    Robert A. Heinlein

    This includes darning socks and rebuilding carborators.

    Todd Watson wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • Quote from ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress?’

      Kirstin wrote on January 26th, 2012
      • Yes, it is! I had forgotten about it until recently because I had read the book so long ago. It effected me for years, but I, sadly, lost perspective. I read it again six months ago around the time I had started the Primal Blueprint. I posted it on my wall by my computer to remind me daily.

        Todd Watson wrote on January 27th, 2012
  33. Self sufficiency directly threatens centralised totalitarian power structures, specialisation doesn’t. The specialist is always dependent on another to meet some of his or her basic needs. He’s a collectivist. The self sufficient person is an individualist.

    Totalitarians have always cracked down on self sufficient people – normally the rural class in most societies. Think of China and Russia (under communist collectivism) collectivisation of farms – couldn’t have them peasants living independently of the government! Nope they had to take their land, get them to farm food and then have the government hand it back to them.

    Interesting story about Zen Buddhism in China. When religious persecution of Buddhists started in China many hundreds of years ago, and the ruling class started destroying monasteries, only Zen Buddhism flourished – eventually becoming the dominant form of Buddhism in China.

    Why? Because they were self sufficient. They grew their own food, knew how to fight, build etc. Doing all of those things mindfully was seen as the route to self development.

    This specialisation, the world of the expert, who’s specialisation gives him a sense of omniscience when it actually blinkers him the more specialised it becomes. It’s an ugly thing.

    I don’t think, personally, that a more effective washing machine created by a more specialised society is a worthwhile sacrifice for freedom.

    @George Of The Jungle wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • I do agree with you that self sufficiency is a threat to at least some power structures – from macro to micro levels of society. I have personally experienced exactly the punishment meted out to those who are challenging the status quo.

      However, I don’t agree that the situation is as black or white – either/or – as you seem (to me) to suggest. In fact, IMO, its “either/or” thinking that is the basis of the disconnect/compartmentalization that underlies the trend toward specialization.

      I tend to think in terms of “both/and” – as I (hopefully) demonstrate in my own life.

      rarebird wrote on January 26th, 2012
  34. Mark -

    Haven’t finished reading the comments yet – but I just gotta stop and say – I couldn’t agree with you more, Mark!

    Seems like some of us here are kindred spirits when it comes to the “self-sufficency” and/or “renaissance man/woman” thing.

    In fact, I had been thinking that I need to change my nickname here to one that is a bit more descriptive and less muddled by the text font. I was thinking of using a nickname that a friend dubbed me with – but, hesitated because it can be mis-interpreted in a number of ways.

    My friend called me a “rarebird” largely because of my dedication to blending/balancing both generalist and specialist aspects throughout my life. That’s a major life theme for me. So, “rarebird” it is!

    I insisted on my children all learning to be self-sufficient in gender neutral ways. They all – boys and girls – can cook, sew, clean, garden, do basic car mechanics, balance a check book, maintain a personal computer, and much more.

    As adults, what they choose to do with their time and money is their business – and of course they each have personal preferences. As they get older, I see them returning more and more to their roots, in this regard. My daughter is now teaching her children – my only grandchildren to date – self-sufficiency as well. Its grand fun for me to mentor them in their various interests.

    I’ll share examples of how I balanced generalist and specialist themes in my professional life. Anyone with a mind to can do something similar in their own lives – in whatever ways they enjoy.

    As an undergraduate, I chose to pursue an honor’s degree that allowed me to design my own curriculum. While I knew that I was headed toward a science career – and my degree was a B.S. – my overall program included as many courses from the humanities as possible.

    I had a second major in history with an emphases on intellectual history, history of science, and to a lessor extent medical history. I continued my formal study of history during my graduate studies as well – when I also added a minor in statistics. I packed in as many courses as I could to give me a broad perspective on my developing career path.

    I also added in as many independent research credits as possible – including choosing to engage in an honor’s thesis involving lab based research. I was a published researcher and a member of “by invitation” scientific societies/communities before I completed my bachelor’s degree.

    One of my research interests was about as highly specialized as things get. My colleagues numbered on two hands – in obscure labs around the world. Collaboration and publication of findings began in personal email.

    In the lab, I was largely dependent on self-sufficieny, and the ability to generalize.

    First of all, I was conducting basic research in an area that was a cutting edge frontier. My hypotheses challenged the status quo in that domain. The results eventually contributed to a paradigm shift that had implications in the field at large. Without the context of a broader, generalist’s perspective, I would never have been able to succeed intellectually as a specialist.

    On a mundane, day to day basis self-sufficiency was critical to the lab functioning. I calibrated the lab equipment based on formulas that I derived mathematically as well as my own physical sensory “equipment”. I built equipment that I couldn’t buy and programed the computers to collect and to process data in specific/unique ways. Beta tested quite a few software programs in the process, providing feedback to the programers – all while conducting the ongoing research.

    Much of the lab work was lonely, boring work so during certain times I worked on various crafts that were portable to the lab. At home, I had an art studio that I spent time in as well as my garden.

    Its important to balance activities – and the more intense, focused, and specialized one’s professional activities are, the more necessary it is that one’s “leisure” activities balance them. There is an entire body of research on this topic, btw.

    For example, Einstein played a violin. Churchill painted landscapes. They especially engaged in these “leisure” activities during the most demanding parts of their careers.

    Anyway, long winded here again….sorry about that. The “Muse Affect” I guess :-).

    rarebird – formerly rrustad

    rarebird wrote on January 26th, 2012
  35. Mark: Many great and salient points in in your post. But, then you go of course by saying: “I like …knowing that we are wired to be self-sufficient…”

    Why did you say that? As you know, the evidence is overwhelming that we are actually “wired” and/or genetically-tuned to be collaborative, interdependent and inter-reliant. To my knowledge there is ZERO evidence of solitary pure hunter-gathers. The very concept of human individuality is a neolithic product. Linguists have shown that, most ancestral languages did not differentiate between men (the plural) and man (the singular). There was just man (singular and plural). The primal mind did (does) not truly recognize individuality. The hermitic lifestyle (living as a 100% individual) is also a product of the neolithic age as it is nearly impossible to survive as an individual within the hunter-gatherer template.
    This is an important issue in the primal/paleo movement of today. I personally am troubled by the seemingly high numbers of young ‘Neo-Individualist’ Primal/Paleo youngsters who, by some erroneous logic, seem to associate Primal/Paleo/Ancestral with the likes of Ayn Rand and Ron Paul.
    Love you buddy. You are a healer and you are helping so many people. Cheers.

    John J. Collins, DC wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • I took the wired for self-sufficiency to allude back to the Earlier mentioned hunter-gatherer need for a wide variety of survival skills to be held by all in the group. It’s not about the practice of living alone but the ability to fulfill all the basic survival functions within the band. You never know when most of the group could be decimated by starvation, disease, war, etc.

      Jen wrote on January 26th, 2012
      • That’s how I took it too. Self sufficient is a separate concept from hermit

        bbuddha wrote on January 26th, 2012
      • I mostly took the article that way, but I have to admit, a lot of these comments sound a lot like, “If the apocalypse happens, I can survive on my own and the rest of y’all are SCREWED!” Or a bit holier-than-thou because you knew how to change a tire when you were 16. Great.

        Deanna wrote on January 26th, 2012
        • It’s not about the actual act of being able to change a tire, Deanna. It’s the concept of learning to do things yourself instead of paying someone else to do it AND in preparation for a time when having someone else do it may not be an option. I don’t think most people here are being “holier-than-thou”, just trying to share the gospel of self-sufficiency. God bless . . .

          Justin wrote on January 27th, 2012
  36. About half the things on his list wouldn’t be possible without specialization. I sympathize with the message of enriching one’s life through means other than consumption, but to bash specialization on a blog, using computers, over the internet, all of which exist and function thanks to systems of systems of systems … of systems of specialized individuals working together is beyond ridiculous.

    Kevin wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • I do see the irony implicit in your comments :-). However, I’m not sure that Mark is “bashing specialization” in toto. In my subjective perception, he is mostly pointing out the down side of specialization. As someone who has functioned as both a specialist and a generalist, I would agree with him.

      rarebird wrote on January 26th, 2012
  37. Great post Mark!!

    The Primal Blueprint touches on a lot more than simply diet, when comparing our modern day living to how paleolithic ancestors, but this post takes it one step further.

    Our motivation to “specialize” has made us less able in more ways than I’d care to admit. You can’t ignore how specialization has helped move society forward in many ways, but for me, I admire the renaissance man/woman who is capable and accomplished in many skills.

    Philip Mancini wrote on January 26th, 2012
  38. Mark, I do believe you sound like a real socialist (and I mean that in a good way)! It reminds me a bit of the communal living I experienced on a kibbutz in Israel. Everyone held their own and did a bit of everything. I’m also grateful for the specialization that has brought us here today – especially for the development of arts, music, and all things beautiful. However, I don’t love the class stratification and hierarchies that go along with it. Nice food for thought.

    Stephanie wrote on January 26th, 2012
  39. After years in high tech, I am now an artist. I think the arts provide an outlet for the need to do something from start to finish. I come from a long line of jacks of all trades. I find that I am no longer interested in the do-it-yourself thing, but I really appreciate the people who can do the things I would rather pay for. My collection of business cards is a treasure house. And I have more time to do my thing–from start to finish.

    Gail wrote on January 26th, 2012
  40. Epic stuff, Mark. Well done.

    Alex wrote on January 26th, 2012

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