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?

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182 thoughts on “Musings on Specialization and Self-Sufficiency in the Modern World”

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

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

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

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

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

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

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

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

    1. 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.

  6. “I’m not intimately familiar with Mr. Heinlein’s work (although I certainly have heard of his books)…”

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

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

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

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

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

    1. 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!

      1. 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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

    3. 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!

      1. 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.

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

        2. 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      1. Amen!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    1. I hear “How hard can it be?” and immediately think of Jeremy Clarkson and the British version of Top Gear, where that phrase invariably is followed by hilarity and mayhem.

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

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

      1. 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.

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

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

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

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

      1. 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.)

    2. “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…..

    3. 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!

      1. 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……

  16. Brilliant!!!

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

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

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

    Thanks for sharing, Mark!

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

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

    1. 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.

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

    1. 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.

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

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

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

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

    1. 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.

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

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

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

    1. 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.

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

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

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

    1. 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.

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

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

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

    Maybe I’m a crazy person.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    1. 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?

      1. 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.

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

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

    This includes darning socks and rebuilding carborators.

      1. 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    1. 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.

  33. Mark –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    rarebird – formerly rrustad

  34. Mark: Many great and salient points in in your post. But, then you go of course by saying: “I like …knowing that we are wired to be self-sufficient…”

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

    1. 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.

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

      2. 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.

        1. 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 . . .

  35. 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.

    1. 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.

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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.

  39. 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.

  40. 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

    1. 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.

  41. 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:-)

    1. 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!

  42. 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!

    1. 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!

  43. 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.

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

  44. 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”! 😉

  45. 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.

  46. 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.

    1. “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!

      1. 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 🙂

  47. 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”.

    1. 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.

  48. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

        1. 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.

  49. 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.

  50. 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.

  51. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

  52. 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.

    1. 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!

    2. 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.

    3. 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.

      1. 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.

  53. 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.

    1. +1 very well said “capable, competent people are a valuable resource”

    2. “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.

  54. 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.
    Cheers

  55. 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?

    1. Yep. I’ve had the same experience with the reactions of others. And, my feelings about it are like yours. Exactly.

  56. IIRC that quote comes from Time Enough For Love. The Lives, Loves of Lazarus Long

  57. 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!

    1. 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.

    2. 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’.

      1. 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.

  58. 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.

  59. This is the smartest group of bloggers I’ve run across in a long time.

  60. 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

  61. 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!

  62. 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?

  63. That Heinlein quote is one of my and my husband’s favorites! It’s so true, I wish more people would embrace the philosophy.

  64. 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!

  65. 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.

  66. 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.

  67. 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.

  68. 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.

  69. 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

  70. 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!

  71. 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.

  72. 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!

  73. 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.

  74. 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.

  75. Man, I love these ‘pondering posts’ the best of all! I never knew Mark had a restaurant by the way. If I had a primal restaurant, I’d offer a 10% discount to people wearing vibrams. I’d call it… wait for it… the five finger discount *G*

  76. The “no one left to make spearheads” lamentation does not provide a lesson about “ensuring that you and others understand the basics of .” What such historical anecdotes help to explain is the lamentably primitive nature of societies which for whatever reason lack adequate freedom of trade among disparate families & communities.

  77. I grew up on a farm and can do most things myself, fix cars, build things, etc. However I also realise the importance of specialisation or the division of labour. It is what makes our lives better. If we all did everything ourselves we would indeed be truly living the paleo lifestyle. Specialisation is crucial to us having modern houses, mobile phons, computers, and internet and websites. It would not be possible to have our way of life without it. I still service my own car, build furniture and grow fish/veges in my aquaponics system, all to save money and eat well. We need a balance.

  78. The next time you board an airplane, you better hope the engineers who designed it were intensely specialized…

    There is a limit to the jack-of-all-trades mentality.

  79. Outstanding post, Mark. I think you have nailed the Achilles heel of our modern society. Just as we have experienced a tech bubble, a real-estate bubble – scenarios where growth outpaced it’s own sustainability due to a flawed model – we will eventually find ourselves in the midst of a humanity bubble. The current model of specialization and consumption is not sustainable in the long run.
    Those of us who have embraced the Primal lifestyle, especially those who have gone all the way in learning hunting, gathering, surviving in nature, will have a leg up if and when the time comes to turn to that lifestyle for survival.
    Not meaning to sound like a EOTWAWKI survivalist nut ( I am not), but should the threads of society begin to unravel due to unsustaianable demand for the limited resources, specialization will no longer be an advantage, and simple survival as a family or band will be the order of the day. No need for a fast internet connection and cell service when your primary concern is finding food for your family in the absence of currently taken-for-granted services.
    I am going to print Mr. Heinlein’s quote and post it in my office – I mean cave 🙂
    -Mark

  80. Great post, Mark. The ones I love most are ones like this – musings on big issues (not that I don’t like the nutritional nitty-gritty, too).

    One of the most significant things I learned from my father was the value of learning to do things yourself. He has all these great tools in the basement, and can do a lot of home repairs himself, but he didn’t grow up with it. Once, I asked him how he learned it all. He told me that any time the house needed a repair, he’d compare the cost of buying the tools to the cost of hiring someone to do it. As long as the tools weren’t significantly more expensive, he bought the tools, educated himself, and invested the time. I think of that almost any time I teach myself a new skill, particularly a practical one.

    What I find most significant about it, I think, is that it illustrates how learning self-sufficiency can be, counter-intuitively, a great tool for building community and relationships with others.

  81. A good general attitude, but unless we return to hunter gathering, specialization is iinevitable. In others words, I agree, but add, don’t overstate the case and begin to sound like a survivalist waiting for the collapse of civilization.  It is unlikely that you can find a competent neurosurgeon who can also repair cars, design bridges, fly a jet liner…etc.  Robert Heinlein was very inclined to grandiose declarations which faded in the light of careful analysis..Still his declarations are worth discussing– the declarations of Heinlein the survivalist, not those of Heinlein the not so very crypto fascist.

  82. Interesting take. If a majority of selective pressures were abrogated since the agro/neolithic revolutions insofar as human nutrition and genetic expression, couldn’t the same be said for society? What of psychological concepts identity and liberty? How do denser and more populous modern tribes manifest those concepts differently?

  83. Unfortunately, I think this is basically romantic claptrap. If we seriously pursued self-sufficiency, or seriously abandoned specialization, we would quickly reduce the global population to pre-neolithic populations. Specialization and trade are the keys to abundance, period.

    That said, specialization brings its own problems, and I’m not an advocate of blindly accepting specialized production (know your farmer). But romanticizing about this is basically possible only for people who have already absorbed the benefits of the very specialization that they bemoan.

    Here’s a very interesting blog post by an economist – http://cafehayek.com/2009/04/gifted-in-nepal.html. I think that the Paleo/Primal community could use a good dose of economic understanding.

  84. One of the great things about the internet is that it really can help to facilitate self-sufficiency. Learning a skill these days can be as easy as finding a tutorial online to get you started.

    Obviously the internet is a two-edged sword, but it’s all in the choices you make. You can use Youtube to look at cat videos all day, or you can use it to learn how to poach an egg, check your oil or play guitar. Oh well, my two cents chucked. Be sure to use your browser to learn how to do something cool before you get up 😛

  85. The article reminds me of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Every man knew who was the best at shooting at game, starting a fire, talking to the natives, sewing up buckskin. There was some specialization but 90% of the time it was walking, lifting heavy stuff and occasional sprinting.

  86. The analogy between multiply skilled hunter-gatherers and modern multi-tasking culture is false. It draws a false parallel between the directly meaningful human activity of hunter-gatherers (hunting and gathering for sustenance) and the alienated pseudo-activity of modern life (programming computers). Heinlein is apparently suggesting that we can have both at the same time but a cursory glance at the technological environment in which we live should prove the absurdity of that view.

    Heinlein is correct about the undesirability of the present culture of specialization but he misses the point of his own argument. The multiplication of pseudo-activities in modern life, especially as relates to the proliferation of alienated technologies like computers, is the very reason we have a culture of specialization in the first place. How on earth is a person supposed to be multi-skilled in a technological mass culture? Show me the person who learns to hunt, farm land, write literature, organize business activities, program computers and engineer bridges, and all within a single lifetime.

    The culture of specialization developed because it was no longer possible for each member of a community to master the same shared activities. It is not humanly possible to be competent in both the activities that are directly necessary to human life AND the myriad micro-activities required to maintain life in technological mass culture. We have to choose one or the other, either meaningful existence with multiply skilled individuals living and working together, or a technological mass culture unavoidably dominated by division of labor.