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Musings on Specialization and Self-Sufficiency in the Modern World

Posted By Mark Sisson On January 26, 2012 @ 8:00 am In Personal Improvement | 168 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 [7]: “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 [8] and there is some dual meaning with my choice of Grok [9] 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 [10] 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 [11]. 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 [12], 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 [13] or do nothing [14] 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?


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