Meet Mark

Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

Tell Me More
Stay Connected
January 26, 2012

Musings on Specialization and Self-Sufficiency in the Modern World

By Mark Sisson
182 Comments

Every 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?

Subscribe to the Newsletter

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

Leave a Reply

182 Comments on "Musings on Specialization and Self-Sufficiency in the Modern World"

avatar

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Maureen
Maureen
4 years 8 months ago

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.

J Turknett
J Turknett
4 years 8 months ago

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…

Garik
Garik
4 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
Becca
4 years 8 months ago

well said! i completely agree.

J Turknett
4 years 8 months ago

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…

rarebird
rarebird
4 years 8 months ago

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.

Jess
Jess
4 years 7 months ago

This is so sad – glad to hear you are bucking the trend!

Ollie
Ollie
4 years 7 months ago

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.

Meg
Meg
4 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
Kat
4 years 8 months ago

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.

Tuck
4 years 8 months ago

“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.

Mark Sisson
4 years 8 months ago

@Tuck, clarified further, thanks. “Intimately” familiar versus “familiar.”

Neal McSpadden
4 years 8 months ago

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.

Penady
Penady
4 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
Jessica
4 years 8 months ago

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!

Becca
4 years 8 months ago

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!

Issabeau
Issabeau
4 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
taihuibabe
4 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
Gingerzingi
Gingerzingi
4 years 8 months ago

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!

Kate
Kate
4 years 8 months ago

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.

Charlotte
Charlotte
4 years 8 months ago

In my experience they’re not too thrilled about women driving standard transmission cars, either. 🙂

Drssgchic
Drssgchic
4 years 7 months ago

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.

rarebird
rarebird
4 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
Sandy
Sandy
4 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
Jessica
4 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
Happycyclegirl
Happycyclegirl
4 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
rarebird
rarebird
4 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
Issabeau
Issabeau
4 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
steve
steve
4 years 8 months ago

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.

Joe Hughes
Joe Hughes
4 years 8 months ago

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.

Gydle
4 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
rrustad
rrustad
4 years 8 months ago

Well, Gydle – you know what they say “PhD” stands for? Piled higher and deeper! LOL

Paul Alexander
4 years 8 months ago

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.

Primal Texas
4 years 8 months ago

Tapping into the wisdom of Charlie Munger’s mental models!

Barb
Barb
4 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
Nancy
Nancy
4 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
Kerstin
Kerstin
4 years 8 months ago
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.
Nancy
Nancy
4 years 7 months ago
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… Read more »
Ely
Ely
4 years 8 months ago

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
Ely
4 years 8 months ago

Also, Robert Heinlein may have been a great sci-fi writer but he’s also a misogynist jingoist jerk.

taihuibabe
4 years 8 months ago

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.)

Jason
Jason
4 years 8 months ago

“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…..

mande
mande
4 years 7 months ago

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!

Jason
Jason
4 years 7 months ago

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……

Emily
Emily
4 years 8 months ago

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!

Rochelle
Rochelle
4 years 8 months ago

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.

Amanda
Amanda
4 years 8 months ago

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.

Issabeau
Issabeau
4 years 8 months ago

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.

Andrea
Andrea
4 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
rarebird
rarebird
4 years 8 months ago

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.

cTo
4 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
cancerclasses
4 years 8 months ago

Specialization is the act of giving away the power to control your own fate by voluntarily limiting your knowledge & experience.

Justin
Justin
4 years 8 months ago

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.

cndnrose
cndnrose
4 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
taihuibabe
4 years 8 months ago

This.

jculbyj
jculbyj
2 years 7 months ago
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… Read more »
ryan
ryan
4 years 8 months ago

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.

Karen P.
4 years 8 months ago

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.

Nion
4 years 8 months ago
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? 😛 I know how… Read more »
Justin
Justin
4 years 8 months ago

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!

Nick
Nick
4 years 8 months ago

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.

oxide
oxide
4 years 8 months ago

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.

jculbyj
jculbyj
2 years 7 months ago

That’s why having a family is so important.

Uncephalized
Uncephalized
4 years 8 months ago
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,… Read more »
Karen P.
4 years 8 months ago

Wow, that’s quite a project! Yes, you are crazy. Crazy like a fox.

Hopeless Dreamer
Hopeless Dreamer
4 years 8 months ago

sounds like the kids book “my side of the mountain”…

Uncephalized
Uncephalized
4 years 7 months ago

Well, no plans to befriend any falcons, but you never know I guess.

Matt
Matt
4 years 8 months ago

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”

Joy Beer
Joy Beer
4 years 7 months ago
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!… Read more »
Damien Gray
Damien Gray
4 years 8 months ago

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.

Joe Hughes
Joe Hughes
4 years 8 months ago

I am interested in knowing where that thought came from if you can find the book.

Mark Cruden
Mark Cruden
4 years 8 months ago

Great, thought-provoking article. Thanks!

Ingvildr
Ingvildr
4 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
rarebird
rarebird
4 years 8 months ago

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?

Ingvildr
Ingvildr
4 years 7 months ago

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.

Todd Watson
Todd Watson
4 years 8 months ago
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.… Read more »
Kirstin
Kirstin
4 years 8 months ago

Quote from ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress?’

Todd Watson
Todd Watson
4 years 7 months ago

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.

@George Of The Jungle
@George Of The Jungle
4 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
rarebird
rarebird
4 years 8 months ago

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
rarebird
4 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
John J. Collins, DC
4 years 8 months ago
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… Read more »
Jen
Jen
4 years 8 months ago

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.

bbuddha
bbuddha
4 years 8 months ago

That’s how I took it too. Self sufficient is a separate concept from hermit

Deanna
Deanna
4 years 8 months ago

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.

Justin
Justin
4 years 7 months ago

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 . . .

Kevin
Kevin
4 years 8 months ago

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.

rarebird
rarebird
4 years 8 months ago

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.

Philip Mancini
4 years 8 months ago

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.

Stephanie
4 years 8 months ago

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.

Gail
Gail
4 years 8 months ago

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.

Alex
Alex
4 years 8 months ago

Epic stuff, Mark. Well done.

Brian
Brian
4 years 8 months ago
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. Wouldn’t that go along with the Primal Blueprint guideline that suggests we limit stress? There are some things I do for myself and there are some things I leave for others. I am not very good at gardening, though I try my best every spring. This doesn’t stop me from taking out a share in a local CSA. It eliminates the stress of having to produce my own vegetables, enough to… Read more »
Susan Alexander
4 years 8 months ago
Mark: I love this post. I’ve just come from Twitter, where I my eyes glossed over what must have been the millionth link I’ve seen to a post about FINDING YOUR PASSION. It occurred to me to tweet that the world has enough tweets and posts about this boring-already cliche. The message seems to be that once you find your passion, all will be fine, and everything will flow from there. Sounds good, but how can it be that simple? And what’s a “passion” anyway? Mihalyi’s Czikszentmihaly’s decades of research demonstrates the opposite. We humans love learning new things and… Read more »
rarebird
rarebird
4 years 8 months ago
Happy to see that this post brought Czikszentmihaly to mind for someone besides me :-). I basically agree with what you are saying. However, consider this possiblity – “chasing a singular (implies left brain, sequential reasoning) passion” in such as way as draws on a holistic, right brain simultaneous/contextual reasoning. IMO, and in my experience, it CAN be done. That’s what the corpus callosum supports. In fact, to place this notion in the context of hunter/gatherer “theory” – women tend to have a more highly developed corpus callosum. Caveat – the following is a simplification and no one suggests that… Read more »
Pamela
Pamela
4 years 8 months ago
I am seeing a perfect example of this right now. My Mom was a librarian all her life. She was an incredible one, and went all over fixing up libraries that were disasters. But that was what she did. Now, she is old and has absolutely no hobbies or interests. She is in a care center and just sits there. She won’t go to the million activities there because she doesn’t like games, everything is boring, etc. The lady next to her, much older and really probably on her last leg, is cheerful, has hobbies all over her half of… Read more »
rarebird
rarebird
4 years 8 months ago
I know elderly women – and men – like that, too. Does not bode well for their health. Their entire self-image is invested in their occupations. Like Mark mentioned, colleagues become our family/significant others. Makes retirement very difficult for these people. It often comes as a shock to discover that we ARE replaceable and the world DOES continue on without us and how soon we are forgotten by former co-workers. Depression, suicide, major health issues/crises, return to full time work….. For me, retirement was a chance to make my former vocation into an avocation and to place hobbies/avocations higher up… Read more »
Dragonfly
Dragonfly
4 years 8 months ago
By becoming primal aren’t we taking the responsibility of our health out of the ‘specialized doctors’ hands? I’m much more thoughtful about what I eat, how I exercise, sleep. I no longer look at the cooking, pickling, canning and gardening skills I learned from my mother and grandmothers as obsolete (although some ingredients may differ). And while others look at our constant remodeling (20+years) of our home as too hard and not worth doing themselves, my husband and I get great satisfaction from hearing how professional it looks. (I design and then we figure how to implement.) Except for a… Read more »
Dragonfly
Dragonfly
4 years 8 months ago

While others at our age (60+) just drive around in their motorhomes, eating, drinking and sitting, my husband and I hike, kayak and would love to get back into sailing. Yes, it is wonderful to “see America” but I want to experience it too!

mariss
mariss
4 years 8 months ago

Sounds like first world problems to me. My grandfather built his house from the ground up, grew all his food, grew cotton, turned the cotton into string, and used a loom to make fabric and his bedding. He’s 92 and still has muscle definition in his arms and legs under his sagging skin. I would say the majority of the citizens in developing countries that primarily live off of the land can and must know a variety of different ways to survive.

Charlotte
Charlotte
4 years 8 months ago

this. I work with ladies in rural villages who regularly kick my ass.

Dirk Fetherstonhaugh
Dirk Fetherstonhaugh
4 years 8 months ago
Matt Ridley in his book “The Rational Optimist” says that self-sufficiency has always been equated with poverty. If the economy tanks, we naturally revert to self-sufficiency as a fallback position but the impact on individual wealth is huge. It is simply impossible to imagine modern life as we know it and be self-sufficient. I’m not saying I like it – self-sufficiency sounds so much better than dependent. But perhaps our genetics have not yet completely caught up to our economic genome. Which reminds me – I’ve been meaning to read Freud’s “Civilization and Its Discontents”! 😉
Mary Hone
4 years 8 months ago

I think that’s all so very true. Everyone needs to have a variety of skills. I know people who wouldn’t live 1/2 a day in the wild. Or fix the dishwasher for that matter. Men and women both, need to know a variety of things to make life better for themselves, and the world in general.

DThalman
DThalman
4 years 8 months ago
Dan Ariely in his book “The Upside of Irrationality” discusses sociological experiments that demonstrate how and why humans are far more satisfied when they have a hand in the entire process of something, rather than specializing in one part. It’s true for me, for sure. Doing something from scratch–whether it’s mastering a sport climb, cooking and home canning, making fabric with batik techniques and then sewing stuff out of it, home improvement and construction, training to improve my race times in the pool, raising a child to adulthood, designing a positive learning environment in my classroom and more–it’s all about… Read more »
Meesha
Meesha
4 years 8 months ago
“Sometimes I look around my house at all the accoutrements of my hobbies, interests and sports and it’s a little overwhelming–I like so many different things and there’s never time to enjoy them all on the level I’d like to.” This is how it is for me! I feel overwhelmed. Right now, I have a 7, 5 and 1 year old, so I am practicing patience instead of one of the many things I’d like to learn. And having a family does give me incentive to learn more about cooking, which I’ve come to enjoy more and more. I just… Read more »
DThalman
DThalman
4 years 8 months ago

I don’t think I did much of anything other than cook and clean and haul my daughter around in the bike trailer when she was little–and we only had the one! She’s about to turn 19, off at college now. So I AM relishing my (relative) freedom, as much as I miss her. You have your hands full; it’ll get easier 🙂

Lea
Lea
4 years 8 months ago

Very thought-provoking post! When I chose to major in Liberal Arts (History) in college I knew it would mean I would need to go to graduate school. My Masters degree in Business meant I could go on to support myself very well. (a form of specialization) But the broader education I received has helped me tremendously both in my career and in my current endeavors. I would agree with some of the other commenters that being a well-rounded person is something to strive for. But there is also a place and strong need in society for “specialists”.

rarebird
rarebird
4 years 8 months ago
I personally find that developing my “specialist” aspect as well as my “generalist” aspect is what made me a well rounded person in today’s world. My natural tendency – first love if you will – is generalizing. I had to work harder at the specialist part. And, the specialist part was always within the context of the generalist or I did find myself losing balance/wellness. Maybe some other people would find it more natural the other way around, specializing easier than generalizing. Which takes us to Jung’s theory about the personality having weaker aspects that need to be developed so… Read more »
Phocion Timon
Phocion Timon
4 years 8 months ago
My dad, though a medical specialist, abhorred specialists in life. Thanks to him, while I was at home and self-teaching after I left home, I can: Hunt with a firearm, bow and arrow, or a piece of string. I can fish using a pole or net. I can start a fire using several methods. I’ve used a home-made slingshot to kill rabbits. I’ve never actually built a bow but I know how it’s done. I do reload my own ammunition. I built a knife from a file I stole from Dad. I know how to lash a pack to a… Read more »
rarebird
rarebird
4 years 8 months ago
Good for you! Hope you said “thanks” to Dad. I know PhD’s who can’t boil water (the majority) and other PhD’s who are gourmet cooks (the rare minority). There is a term – and a body of research (naturally!) on this topic. Key term – “protracted adolescence”. The younger generations are married less often, later in life – same for child bearing – have a restricted range of life skills – and maintain their adolescent interests later into life. Increasingly, women are choosing a career over marriage. Increasingly, children are being raised on fast food, one of my votes for… Read more »
DThalman
DThalman
4 years 8 months ago
Maybe it’s the circles I travel in, but the young people I hang out with (OK, they are mostly climbers) are very much into the jack of all trades thing. They are versatile in their skills. What has really surprised me is how much they value some of the traditional skills of mine, like sewing and canning. Coming of age in the 70s and 80s, these things were seen in a negative light as homemaker activities–women were supposed to pursue careers and use their brains. I did that, too, but I always saw usefulness in those “housewifey” pursuits and even… Read more »
rarebird
rarebird
4 years 8 months ago
Thank you for this perspective. You are so right! I was just asking myself how I got into such a funk today – and reminding myself about how I used to go on about “dying and lost arts” when I was coming of age in the ’60’s and ’70’s. Now, I laugh about how some of these skills are experiencing a rebirth – so I was worried over nothing. Knitting and similar ‘needle/fiber arts” are very popular pastimes with some young people – just do an Internet search sometime and see how even knitting socks has a following. it may… Read more »
wpDiscuz