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

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?

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. 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 survive on for a full year. If my garden grows well, I have extra that I can store. If it doesn’t grow well, I don’t go hungry.

    I leave the raising and butchering of my meat to people that are better at it than I. I don’t starve, and at the same time I have the freedom to pursue activities where I have far more success.

    I think a good rule of thumb is, if you can perform the task well enough to make a living, it’s a specialization. If you can’t make a living doing that task, it’s a hobby. I like woodworking and have built furniture and other things out of wood, but I’m no carpenter. I like gardening, but I’m no farmer. I can sew, knit, and cook, but I am not a tailor or chef. When I do these things, I do them because I enjoy them or because the tasks are small enough that is easier to do them on my own than to hire a professional, not because my survival depends on them. So they are stress relief, in which case they do help contribute to my survival, but not so much in the way they did for our ancestors.

    Brian wrote on January 26th, 2012
  2. 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 stretching ourselves. That’s how we find flow, happiness, and meaning in life.

    We can’t very well do those things, it seems to me, by chasing a singular passion.

    Great post!


    Susan Alexander wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • 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 there were no exceptions to the general rule…..

      One hypothesis is that women evolved to have a more complex corpus callosum due to their roles in hunter/gatherer society emphasizing generalization over specialization. Male roles tended to emphasize specialization. Women’s roles as generalists supported the male specialization roles and vice versa.

      One basis for this hypothesis is biology – and survival of the species. Women bore and nursed the offspring. Their hormonal systems were geared toward nurture and cooperation. Male hormonal systems were in relation to men being larger, stronger, more impervious to pain…in other words great hunters/warriors while women were great gatherers/organizers.

      Some tribal societies that we can study in the historical records demonstrate this organization. For example, the Cherokee Nation. Women were highly regarded within the clan as leaders, organizers, communicators – and were often peace chiefs. The early European settlers refused to do business with a woman so Cherokee men were forced to assume the roles normally held by women in order to communicate with the European males.

      rarebird wrote on January 26th, 2012
  3. 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 the room, is willing to teach them to people, does crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, word games, and goes all over the facility in her wheelchair. We take our crafts to show her and she’s all excited. But my Mom won’t try new things — she never got in the habit of it. She didn’t have friends and doesn’t want to meet people. I’d like to think if I can’t work with horses or sheep or goats, I’d still have a million things I could do. Gives one pause. I think specializing is great. I can go from sheep to sweater, wild horse to trained horse (specialities), but I can cook, sew, clean, repair, paint, grow things, etc. and take care of myself in general (well, electrical and plymbing might be issues)! Yep, Heinlein said a lot of really good stuff! Be fun to see how much stuff in the quote we could come close too:-)

    Pamela wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • 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 on my activities list. Same interests just with a reversal of emphasis – and not tied to any major commitments. Freedom!

      rarebird wrote on January 26th, 2012
  4. 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 structural engineer check, we do it all by ourselves and it sure beats sitting around drinking and eating ourselves into the grave like so many of our peers.

    We are sooo much healthier for it, mentally and physically while entering our mid sixties. Never stop learning, never stop trying!

    Dragonfly wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • 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!

      Dragonfly wrote on January 26th, 2012
  5. 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.

    mariss wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • this. I work with ladies in rural villages who regularly kick my ass.

      Charlotte wrote on January 26th, 2012
  6. 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”! 😉

    Dirk Fetherstonhaugh wrote on January 26th, 2012
  7. 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.

    Mary Hone wrote on January 26th, 2012
  8. 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 the process. There’s so much satisfaction in learning and creating–sometimes with collaboration from others and sometimes as solitary pursuits. It’s what I love about being middle-aged: At almost 50, I notice how my many past hobbies, pursuits and projects merge and parallel, the skills acquired from the earlier pursuits being borrowed and built upon to develop or enhance new skills. It’s great to feel accomplished and have that to share, which is I think what Mark’s saying when he talks about how it will be with grandchildren someday. 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. I wander back and forth, returning to my buried bin of yarn to take on a knitting project or seting aside the drill and route-setting plans to train for a big wall climb. I’m always zig zagging like that, never focusing on one thing entirely. But it keeps things interesting.

    DThalman wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • “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 wish I had more time for planning and preparing meals!

      Meesha wrote on January 26th, 2012
      • 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 :)

        DThalman wrote on January 26th, 2012
  9. 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”.

    Lea wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • 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 that individuation could take place as a person matured. Jung was a keen anthropologist, btw.

      rarebird wrote on January 26th, 2012
  10. 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 horse with one piece of rope.

    I can cook using a skillet, a stick, or a piece of string. I know how to break a horse or train a dog to carry a pack. I know how to butcher a deer, a steer, or a bucketful of quail. I make pemmican almost year ’round.

    I can weld, build a barbed-wire fence, and have used a variety of traps for catching small animals. I’m even enough of a carpenter to have built a quite nice small building and I did the electrical wiring and plumbing also.

    I can chop a tree down with a double-bit axe or chainsaw and have it fall where I wish. I know how to sharpen that axe or my knives to the point I can literally shave with them.

    I brag about all this stuff for a reason: I am amazed at the number of people that cannot do anything. The sum of their life knowledge is the shortest route to the office, how long it takes to get to the nearest Starbucks, and what an actor wore to the Oscars.

    Phocion Timon wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • 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 causes for the obesity epidemic. They have NO idea what real food tastes like let alone where it comes from – or how to expend energy procuring it for themselves.

      If I wanted to stress myself out over the future of society, not to mention the planet as a whole, it would be real easy to do. Just not going there.

      rarebird wrote on January 26th, 2012
      • 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 more importantly–I liked them. So what’s cool is how much my younger climbing buddies and my teenaged daughter and her peers appreciate the sewing etc. yeah the stuff can be purchased for less at WalMart, but they want to know how to make it.

        DThalman wrote on January 26th, 2012
        • 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 be a hobby not a necessity but those socks will still keep feet warm.

          Canning and otherwise preserving food has had a huge upsurge in interest in the last few years. Same for sewing. Even cloth diapers have become fashionable in some circles – including special types of hand sewn covers/pants. Probably can thank the poor economy for that in part – but only part.

          I have had a few young – and not so young – people ask me to teach them to do various things lately. I am considering starting classes again like I did many years ago.

          I just get kinda bummed out sometimes. But, I won’t get myself into a funk again. There are positives to focus on and that’s why I came here to this blog in the first place.

          rarebird wrote on January 26th, 2012
  11. I love Heinlein. His books will really make you think. Stretching the mind is always good. To the point….one of the things that really stretched my abilities was buying a house when I was a young divorced mother. I learned how to do everything but electrical stuff. There are some things I don’t want to do anymore but I do know how.

    bbuddha wrote on January 26th, 2012
  12. There is a lot of reward that comes with self sufficiency. Its unfortunate that many born to in more privileged settings never get to dive into doing it for yourself. To me, if there was a choice, I would choose to live the life that provides me the chances to learn & grow more as those experiences are the backbone of your life. The more you experience, then, one can argue, the more you truly live.

    John s wrote on January 26th, 2012
  13. Well, maybe no one will agree with me, but I think Mark’s post (while articulate and thought provoking, as always) is goofy. Nothing in life is self-sufficient. The language we speak, the ideas we have (including the idea of “self-sufficiency”), the way we sit and move, how we experience pleasures and pain, what we consider normal or abnormal, are all products of culture and history.

    Grok had culture too. No doubt his culture had advantages and disadvantages compared to others, but it was culture all the same. There is nothing “natural” about tanning hides, farming, running long distances, lifting heavy things, etc. They are things that some cultures consider important and others don’t consider at all.

    Self-sufficiency is a fundamentally bizarre idea in any case. Any infant human left alone will die; we are completely un-self-sufficient beings, and we receive culture from the moment we are born, thank goodness. I think we should embrace interdependence and strengthen it, not pretend that there is some imaginary “self-sufficient individual” beneath culture, history, and the division of labor.

    Matt wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • bizarre comment “any infant left alone will die” from that you extrapolate that adults can’t be self sufficient. Also postulating that because we are part of a culture or society that this somehow means we can’t have the ability to provide for ourselves. Self sufficiency isn’t an imaginary state, it is an admirable goal.

      bbuddha wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • Not understanding the crux of your point here. Of course we evolved to cooperate and be part of a group. Mark said exactly that. The ability of a person to perform any needed function in the band society to both contribute to the group and to ensure his/her own survival should he/she leave the group or be separated from the group for some reason makes complete evolutionary sense. Specializing to the point that we have no ability to support ourselves or contribute to the basic survival needs of the group doesn’t make evolutionary sense.

      Jen wrote on January 26th, 2012
  14. I think there’s a difference between basic life skills and work specialization. I’m keen on bridges built by engineers and medicine and dentistry by trained doctors… and so on.

    I’d rather spend my time doing research that improves the human race than in simply maintining my own organism, which is what a lot of these almost ‘survivalist’ skills entail.

    ‘The simple life’ is not that simple all of these activities take time, effort and skills. Ultimately it’s about balance. I’ve already spent a big chunk of my life on this stuff – that’s what stay-at-home mothers do. We are cooks, cleaners, educators, artists, drivers, planners, communicators, menders of broken computers and broken hearts. Now I’d like to spend some time doing other stuff.

    Helen wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • Exactly, Helen. But the difference is you know how to do it all! I’m in the same boat (also stay at home right now). Can’t wait to have more time to devote to my chosen profession. Nonetheless, I’ll go back to it a more well-rounded, wiser person!

      Jen wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • I totally agree with you. I just did it backward: I spent a ton of time in college focusing on my craft so that I could have a successful career in my chosen field. Now I’m in, I’m working my way up, and I’m taking on other interests: cooking, working out, reading, etc. Kids will come along the way, eventually.

      Deanna wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • Helen, I agree with you.

      Of course agriculture, the industrial revolution, and other shifts in human existence have their down side. Big time. I’d prefer to learn the lessons from the past – including all about our ancestors and the hunter/gatherer lifestyle, and most importantly how our bodies work based on our evolution. I’d not care to return to the past – but to continue to evolve and to correct the mistakes made to this point. Technology has gotten us into some ugly messes, but I believe that technology can also get us out of them if we care to use it that way. I guess only time will tell.

      rarebird wrote on January 26th, 2012
      • Very much so, rarebird – it’s about learning and applying those lessons. Figuring out how to get the good stuff and leave out the bad.

        Helen wrote on January 27th, 2012
  15. When I was young and wanted something done that was physically hard or took specialized knowledge, I was told I had to wait for one of the men in my family to do it. It really torqued my screws to be helpless and at the mercy of others. So, I joined the Navy as an electrician. I wasn’t really good at it, but I learned some skills to care for my own needs.
    I had a water line in my house break and refused to call a plumber to fix such a simple thing. I went to the nice man at the hardware store and asked for instruction.
    The wind did damage to my roof, so I fixed it.
    I can change my car oil and flat tires. I can garden and even designed and built a successful hydroponics setup.
    I believe that if I don’t know how to do something the first time, I can find someone to show me how it’s done.
    I believe capable, competent people are the most valuable resource America possesses and that raising helpless children should be illegal. Give yourself every advantage you can by learning all you can.

    TruckerLady wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • +1 very well said “capable, competent people are a valuable resource”

      bbuddha wrote on January 26th, 2012
      • +2: raising helpless children should be illegal!!

        Hopeless Dreamer wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • “When I was young and wanted something done that was physically hard or took specialized knowledge, I was told I had to wait for one of the men in my family to do it. It really torqued my screws to be helpless and at the mercy of others.”

      LOL! Yep! On a larger scale that’s what “torques my screws” today – knowing that the majority of the population is dependent on such a small percentage that produce the food supply. The loss of the family farm to Big AgriBusiness makes me feel helpless sometimes.

      rarebird wrote on January 26th, 2012
  16. The greatest gift we gave our kids wasnraising them in the country. They learnt about providing our own water, dealing with livestock, fencing, and fixing a host of little things that need attention on a farm. Practical skills and common sense are taught, and as parents we have an obligation to eqip our children with skills they need to live independent lives.
    I also feel that out current world of ridiculus consumption has been part of the fuel of discontent felt by so many people. It’s true here in Australia that there is a generation of young people now who would list their favorite past time as shopping, which is kinda sad.

    Heather wrote on January 26th, 2012
  17. It seems normal to me to be interested in and able to do a wide range of things. I grow a lot of my own food, make all my own clothes, homeschooled two kids; I spin, knit, and weave; I’m a fine artist, and I draw as well as photograph. I’m a good enough cook to work as a caterer from time to time. I’ve made money as a writer and an editor, and as a teacher. I’ve memorized a lot of songs and jokes, so I’m an entertainer of sorts. When I’m in a group of new people, and these abilities emerge, I’m surprised that other people are surprised. They say, “Is there anything you CAN’T do?” Of course! I don’t play tennis or basketball, and I’ve never shot a deer (although once I shot a dove, and I’ve butchered domestic animals). But it seems that most people do one or two things only. This seems really weird to me. Aren’t they bored? Also, why are they surprised I know how to do a lot of things? I’m almost 60 years old! What else would I be doing besides learning new things all this time?

    shannon wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • like!

      DThalman wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • Yep. I’ve had the same experience with the reactions of others. And, my feelings about it are like yours. Exactly.

      rarebird wrote on January 26th, 2012
  18. IIRC that quote comes from Time Enough For Love. The Lives, Loves of Lazarus Long

    Mick Hamblen wrote on January 26th, 2012
  19. Wow, I never disagreed so much in my life, and I’m honestly surprised by how many people here have jumped on the bandwagon. I always hated all the extra garbage I had to learn when I wanted to spend time immersing myself in my craft. I was surrounded by friends who thought the same way. There is nothing less satisfying than being mediocre at everything and a master of nothing.

    Don’t get me wrong, I know how to cook. Nobody really taught me, I just figured it out on my own and now my dad and I exchange ideas. I’ll pick up a sport here or there if I’m interested, but who cares if I don’t know all the rules of baseball or football?

    My brother has a particularly smart friend who had a plumbing problem. He tried to fix it on his own by reading up on it. He failed and ended up calling a plumber. His dad said, “You thought that since you were so smart, you could figure out how to do it on your own, right? And then you figured out why there are people who get paid to do this.”

    Yeah, I suppose it’s nice to be able to to everything, but it’s insulting to the person who put in all that time and effort to think you could do it as well as the person who specialized.

    If we didn’t have specialization, we wouldn’t have art and sports and culture. Think about how much training goes into making the football players we watch every Sunday with our primal treats laid out on the table. How much training goes into those actors, actresses, dancers, and musicians on Broadway and in Hollywood so we can be entertained either live or on TV. Without specialization, there is none of that.

    While I understand the effort, one of the worst ways someone can converse with me is by saying, “Oh, yeah, I played clarinet when I was in high school.” Yeah, good for you. You don’t have a clue what it takes to be a professional.

    Okay, and now that my blood is done boiling, I do agree that adults and kids need hobbies and interests. I think adults should be able to take care of their home. But some people have taken this to a post-apocalyptic level, and I think that’s excessive. I’m a primal girl living in a modern world, not a primal girl wishing she were living in prehistoric times!

    Deanna wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • I sympathize with your view a great deal — specialization gives us lots of important stuff that improves our quality of life. After all, if we were literally living like Grok? We’d be getting picked off by predators and our kids wouldn’t survive nearly as often as they do now.

      I am a reasonably smart person and I will sometimes try to fix things myself. However, I don’t think that because I’m “so smart” I can fix it, usually it’s more I think that I can try and maybe learn something new, and if I screw up, I’ll just call somebody. I replastered the ceiling in my bathroom after some research — if I’d failed, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. When my car needs a new muffler, though? I’ll pay somebody else.

      Charlotte wrote on January 26th, 2012
    • Well said Deanna. I think there are quite a few people agreeing (though perhaps less vehemently) that specialization is useful, while we do need to be able to manage some basic life skills.
      I think part of the problem is that modern life is so complicated. The technology that makes our lives comfortable doesn’t lend itself well to ‘DIY’ as your brother discovered! I’d suggest that this does in fact apply to hunter-gatherer societies too, with many, many hours spent learning to track, hunt, identify plants and so on.

      I did learn clarinet in college, so I have some slight inkling of what it takes to be a professional – there’s a good reason that I’m not one! I don’t have the capacity for such single-minded dedication. I’m very much a ‘jack of all trades’ and it does have a huge downside in that one really is a ‘master of none’.

      Helen wrote on January 27th, 2012
      • Helen,

        You are likely right about there being specialization among hunter/gatherer societies. There are many hypothesis about this period -“pre-historical” means that we have no written record so there is only speculation about and various interpretations of the evidence that we do have.

        Some hypotheses do suggest various types of specialization. I think that its possible that some members of the clan had specific “professional” level skills while the rest of the clan had an “amateurs’s” version of those same skills.

        Redundancy, as Mark suggested, does have survival value. If the clan “expert” were to leave the clan or die, etc one of the more talented amateurs might be pressed into service and thus develop finer skills.

        rarebird wrote on January 27th, 2012
  20. Every year I try to learn something new (or revisit old skills). If you’ve got time and a little money, take a Wilderness First Aid class. Hands down, the most intensely useful set of information I’ve gotten in a weekend, ever.

    Charlotte wrote on January 26th, 2012
  21. This is the smartest group of bloggers I’ve run across in a long time.

    Melissa wrote on January 26th, 2012
  22. I completely understand your point but you may be missing another one.
    I grew up in a single parent home. Mom had severe learning disabilities and there wasn’t anyone else to count on for help. Professionals don’t work for free.
    In my world, if you couldn’t do it, it didn’t get done. If you needed something and couldn’t figure it out, you couldn’t have it.
    I don’t feel sorry for myself, and we certainly weren’t living in a post-apocalyptic situation.(Unless you count the death of my father as an apocalypse) Just in a place where the best resource I had was between my ears. A position any one of us could be in tomorrow.
    I say live your life, have fun, and learn all you can about everything.
    I’m still trying to find someone to teach me to weld!LOL

    TruckerLady wrote on January 26th, 2012
  23. I love this post! I am continuously trying to challenge myself to grow new skills –some for the heck of it, some for my own self-sufficiency. I am in a bike maintenance class right now, learned CPR/First Aid last week, am experimenting in the kitchen, writing, sewing, pushing boundaries.

    For me this continual growth is essential. It gives me satisfaction knowing I can take care of myself and that life will continue to be new and worth exploring. that being said, I am much more confident and have more energy and desire to expand my experience and skill set ever since I went Primal/Paleo 13 months ago. They go hand in hand.

    Thanks, Mark–this was such great timing!

    obligatecarnivore wrote on January 26th, 2012
  24. That was a great read! Specialisation is indeed successful in the modern age and will continue to be for a long time I suspect.
    In my circle of friends most are “specialisation creatures” some live in muli-million dollar houses, others are more modest but most pay for ALL their goods and services – even the cleaning of their own bbqs are done by someone else in most cases.
    They scoff at me and poke fun at my quest for self sufficiency (but they still love me as their friend) and enjoy the free jerky or home-grown vegetables/fruit I give them.
    Yes, specialisation works but those of us who strive for self sufficiency are never envious of those who outsource to save themselves a little time. Why outsource if you can do it yourself – even if you do have plenty of money?

    Mark Valencia wrote on January 27th, 2012
  25. That Heinlein quote is one of my and my husband’s favorites! It’s so true, I wish more people would embrace the philosophy.

    J3nn wrote on January 27th, 2012
  26. It seems to me that with specialization, what you end up with is almost a cult of “expertism” which allows folks to stop thinking for themselves. If folks would just think for themselves, all the specialization on the planet wouldn’t be detrimental. Thinking. Too many people have stopped!

    Sue wrote on January 27th, 2012
  27. I think I have to agree wholeheartedly with that quote. When I went to university, I was exposed to so many different new things, it was hard to make up my mind about what I wanted to graduate with. And that’s just the thing, we are capable of going so many different ways, of choosing so many different paths, and the best part is, some paths run right beside each other, so when you learn one thing, you find out about something else and you want to learn about that.

    I eventually graduated with a BA in psychology and history and had a job I loved in a library. When I made the decision to move to a small village to live with my (now) fiance I had to leave the library and got a job at a credit union. Total 180. I hate math and have no interest in money, but I guess my point is that we are capable of learning and doing whatever we have to do in order to survive.

    Caleigh wrote on January 27th, 2012
  28. Awesome as always Mark. This topic is something I’ve been thinking about myself recently, but couldn’t quite figure out how to put into words. Now I don’t have to.

    primalzen wrote on January 27th, 2012
  29. Mark and Paleo friends:

    A read worth investing in- Paul Shepard, “Welcome Home to the Pleistocene” and of course any Wendell Berry book. They expand on these issues of humans over the past 10,000 years, moving from being generalists to specialists. And how this has created just about everything detrimental to our species.

    Chuck Neely wrote on January 27th, 2012
  30. The enrichment in my life, comes from all the other things I do before and after my “specialized” job, and more importantly the relationships I nurture. Spouse and I built our little abode with our own two hands, and while it wasn’t always fun, we know every square inch of this bungalow. After years of fast paced breakneck pursuit of more, bigger, better… we scaled back and returned to a simpler, slower pace of life without so much external stuff. That leaves us with more time and energy to build the treehouse, sandbox, and goKarts for the grandkids. More time to cook from scratch, walk in the woods, read a good book.

    Specialization certainly has some drawbacks, one of which is that most people think they “need” more “stuff” than they actually do. I think in Grok’s day, wealth and success was measured by how much one could contribute to the well being of the band, how much one could give away. Our modern counterparts seemed to have flipped that.

    GoLisaGo wrote on January 27th, 2012
  31. I really love this post. This is what I actually try do, however, there is a bit more to it.
    Grok was self-sufficiency, but he also relied on a self-sufficiency tribe to help him out when he was to ill, to young, old, or pregnant to be self-sufficiency.
    I think it gives you the extra good feeling if you know how to help yourself and also know that your family and friends can do so as well and you can rely on them.


    Michael wrote on January 27th, 2012
  32. Great post as always Mark. This drive to move beyond specialization is what inspired me to “reclaim” the label “dilettante”. It is often used to describe someone who isn’t very good at anything, but I love the original meaning of a “devoted amateur”. I am a professional at few things, but I am devoted to being a competent amateur at a whole lot more!

    Bex wrote on January 27th, 2012
  33. Mark, I have a question for you. Does a hardcore primal lifestyle change one’s emotional mood? As a hardcore paleo guy (four years)I’ve noticed my emotional tenor has changed…as in I have little or no emotional states at all…I’m a Vulcan now…I’m aware of this because my current profession (filmmaker) requires me to find and create emotional states. My stoic state is not conductive to my work. So, I’m wondering does paleo lead to a stoic state? And can one be stoic and still create emotional works of art? Maybe a primal aesthetic needs to be formulated.

    Directm wrote on January 27th, 2012
  34. Such a timely post for me! I’ve been pursuing a life of self-sufficiency by way of homesteading for the better part of a decade. Sadly, pursuing and achieving are two different things… =/ I taught myself how to knit 2 years ago (thank you, YouTube!), I can change my own tire (and oil, spark plugs, brake calipers…), and hem my own pants, but if I were caught in the wilderness I’d probably die of exposure, starvation, or toxicity from eating the wrong thing. While I agree that specialization has become something of a necessary “evil” in our time (medical practitioners come to mind), there is a much greater need for the population at large to know how to take care of itself when the need arises. This post reinforces my stance on that point, and makes me more determined to learn the “old” ways. Thanks Mark, keep ’em coming!

    Siren wrote on January 27th, 2012
  35. awesome

    josh wrote on January 27th, 2012
  36. Walden! Grid out! Grok on!

    Gruesome wrote on January 27th, 2012
  37. This is my FAVORITE post! Very thought provoking, in a good way: what else might I add to my continuing self-education, and why? As someone who works in higher ed, and can cover the sonnet to programming gamut, I often feel woefully out of touch with the ‘real skills’ of life. We just purchased a cabin with the exact intention of relaxation via activities we don’t do in the city: sleep in pure darkness, see the stars, have my daughter know how to handle various critters etc. Our to-learn list is long…

    One of my heroes, Buckminster Fuller, championed the ‘generalist’ perspective by terming it as being ‘comprehensivist’. He said if God had meant us to be specialists, we would have one eye as a microscope and the other a telescope.

    Jess wrote on January 27th, 2012
  38. Your thoughts coincide with a recent ‘rant’ I ensued on my blog a few days ago on the topic of self-sufficiency vs. community and how we have become so specialized and dependent on field experts- and have lost the original purpose of community. Thank you for your insight and a well-written article.

    Dene Brock wrote on January 27th, 2012

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