'Specialization Is for Insects'

In praise of self-sufficiency


After I dropped out of law school many years ago, my dwindling bank account and I stumbled into the anemic job market of a recession-battered Boston. Did anybody care to offer a soft landing behind a desk to a former financial editor who'd dabbled with a legal education? Not so much, it turned out. Fortunately, I wasn't a one-trick pony. I was able to make a buck in a variety of ways—most of them legal.

For the next year or so, I put food on the table and rent checks in my landlord's pocket by taking temp gigs, working as a paid experimental subject for the city's many medical researchers, and transporting the tools required by a handyman on my motorcycle. Could I repaint your house? Of course! Did I mind splitting firewood? My pleasure. Would I refinish aging wood floors? Sure—just give me a day to recover from that weird cocaine experiment while I pick the brains of the guys at the hardware store.

"Specialization is for insects," the science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein famously wrote. "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."

That's a hell of a lot higher standard than I can meet. But Heinlein's ideal of wide-ranging competency is an excellent goal, however imperfectly any of us might achieve it.

The key in this pursuit is a willingness to push the boundaries of our comfort zones. It's easy to fall into familiar patterns, exercising a few skills that we've mastered and defining ourselves by our daily habits. Have I decided that I'm a suburban white-collar guy? Then it's tempting to turn a host of hands-on tasks over to plumbers, roofers, and other specialists. Those specialists, in turn, might be every bit as limited as me outside of their own zones.

In good times, that's a fine arrangement. Why should I do a mediocre job of repairing my roof if I can pay somebody to do it well? Sure, that means we become dependent on the availability, honesty, and affordability of specialists, but a division of labor is a necessity in life so that we don't expend all our energy on trying to do everything ourselves.

But life has a way of throwing us curveballs. A pipe bursts on a Saturday evening, or a tire gets punctured beyond cellphone reception, or the fix-it list for the electrician picks up a price tag beyond the reach of the budget. Or maybe we emerge from school into a job market that sniffs at our formal credentials. Then our efficient but dependency-producing confinement to a few familiar skills becomes a trap that can leave us frantic, stranded, or broke.

Can we master everything? Not a chance. But we should be willing to think of challenges as opportunities to learn new skills. If the bathtub stops draining, can we try 30 minutes of YouTube and $20 worth of tools before we drop $150 on a plumber? How much could we take on ourselves if the specialists on our contact list were unavailable or cost too much? What can we do that will keep us warm and plump through the bankruptcy of an employer, a nasty recession, or some other unexpected shift in the employment market?

There's probably no way to completely live up to Heinlein's ideal of a swashbuckling, number-crunching poet. I can't even claim that I was good at everything I did to stay afloat in Boston—I'd still like another crack at the first floor I refinished. But I was good enough to make a go of it.

Being good at something you love is a great feeling; being good at something you love and good enough at some things that can keep your books balanced through tough times is better.

NEXT: No, Trump Didn't Cut the CDC's Coronavirus Budget. No, People Aren't Blaming Corona Beer for the Disease.

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  1. Well, the democrats are coming after you; vote wisely.

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  2. Sure, it’s a good idea to have a backup plan if you fall on hard times, and if you want to DIY as a hobby, more power to you.

    But self sufficiency is the road to poverty. Specialization and trade have allowed us to create incredible wealth.

    1. “But self sufficiency is the road to poverty. Specialization and trade have allowed us to create incredible wealth.”

      As a generality, I agree with this statement. On the other hand, some basic, commonsense skill can aid one in keeping their money.

      Actual, extreme case: I know an elderly man, who made a whole lot of money as a software engineer before there was a thing called “silicon valley,” lives in a beautiful old house, with really bad plumbing, which he can still afford to live in (though barely), and pays a plumber for repairs at least once a month, at $75 a pop. So I bought him a toilet plunger and showed him how to use it.

      1. Sure. If you hyperspecialize to the point that you can’t perform basic functions then you’re going to have a rough time.

        Prices are great at communicating where that line is.

        1. Yeppers. When I invested in my first real estate, a piece of bare land, I both designed, drew up the plans, blueprints, etc, myself, and built about 90% of the house by myself. I was young and was, by my standards today, pretty darn broke. The skills I learned from that experience have saved quite a bit of money over the years. On the other hand, now that my time is more valuable to me than the money, if it’s much more complicated that re-wiring an outlet or repairing the toilet, I let the pros do it.

      2. he must be one of the oldest people to ever live. Silicon Valley started in 1939 when Hewlett-Packard was formed.

        1. The first silicon chip was produced in 1961.

          1. “The company was founded in a one-car garage (the historic HP Garage at 367 Addison Avenue, an official California Historical Landmark; its plaque reads “Birthplace of ‘Silicon Valley'””

            1. Oh well if there’s a plaque…

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  3. As one half of the now defunct “Hardly Able Construction Company” (the project team of myself and my brother-in-law) I offer a word of caution about DIY. Sometimes you end up calling the specialist anyway.

    I’m no longer allowed to do my own plumbing.

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  4. To those who champion the real benefits of specialization, knowing how to do lots of things does not mean we have to do them. We can still spend most of our time doing the things we do best.

    But not knowing how to do things (or even the mindset that we can’t do things) means we don’t have any options when the need arises. It also means we can’t deal effectively with experts when we outsource our problems.

    Call it personal resiliency. What could be more important to people who aspire to independence and autonomy, and even both affluence and equality? The more options we have in any situation, including dealing with others with reduced knowledge asymmetry, the less likely that we will become helpless and subservient.

    1. Specialization, a la “specialization and exchange”, is about maximizing utility from more of a quantitative perspective. If your primary concern is accumulating currency, then that’s the way to go. Self-sufficiency also maximizes utility. It’s just that the primary goal is less quantitative and less focused on the accumulation of currency. It’s more qualitative and more focused on other measures of utility.

      1. Right but youre a known, boring bloviator and liar.

    2. It also means we can’t deal effectively with experts when we outsource our problems.

      I don’t think that’s a very practical approach. We outsource almost all our problems and is not realistic to gain a little bit of knowledge about everything.

      Instead we rely on competition and reputation to disincentivize people from taking advantage of us when there is a knowledge asymmetry.

      Again, I’m not at all against learning a wide range of skills. I like to bake bread even though I can go to a bakery and get something better. I’m pretty good on a computer even though I could just take it to a store if I have problems. I take pride in these things. But I do them because they make me happy, not because they make me richer or better able to survive. And I only have the time to indulge in these luxuries because specialization and trade have made almost all of us wealthy enough to meet our basic needs with relatively little labor.

      1. Again, it may not be practical (in the sense of return on investment of time and resources) to learn lots of things as long as times are good, and the system we rely on works. The value comes when we need to rely on ourselves–and the assurance and flexibility that self-reliant ability can give us even in good times.

        Unlike other forms of insurance and cached materials, skills are ultimately portable and permanent. And I do think that a minimum amount of practical knowledge is very effective in talking with our out-sourced service providers, from plumbers to doctors (and even politicians).

  5. “A pipe bursts on a Saturday evening, or a tire gets punctured beyond cellphone reception, or the fix-it list for the electrician picks up a price tag beyond the reach of the budget. Or maybe we emerge from school into a job market that sniffs at our formal credentials. Then our efficient but dependency-producing confinement to a few familiar skills becomes a trap that can leave us frantic, stranded, or broke.”

    I go way out into the wilderness on my motorcycle in the summer. The first time I did it, I didn’t know enough to be scared. When I broke down outside of cell phone range, my “survival” depended on my ability to make friends and influence people. My confidence level going out into the wilderness went way down afterwards.

    Now that I can break my bike down to the nuts and bolts and put it back together again with the tools I carry with me, it gives me the confidence to go places I wouldn’t go before. Some of the most fun I have is between twisty mountain roads that read, “No Services for 120 Miles”, where I don’t see anyone for hours at a time in either direction. The fear of breaking down 60 miles down that road doesn’t stop me anymore.

    That’s what self-sufficiency does: It minimizes the risk of failure and lets you take risks you shouldn’t take if you had to depend on other people. If you can be happy in a dwelling you made for yourself on land you’ve paid for and you can sustain yourself on that land with a minimal amount of dependence on other people, then that’s your new worst case scenario–an you can take risks with your life that shouldn’t take otherwise.

    The trade off is often female companionship. I’m not saying it’s an innate quality of females, and I know there are plenty of women who love to ride on the back of motorcycles and go without a shower for days at a time or want to go out and live on a rural homestead with a composting toilet–because they love it. I’m just saying that in my experience, for whatever reason, it seems to be an either/or kind of thing. When guys buy RVs, I suspect it’s often not because they need to take a bathroom of their own with them everywhere they go. I suspect it’s because they can’t take their female companionship with them out into the wilderness otherwise.

    Going without female companionship for weeks at a time gives a whole new meaning to the term “self-sufficiency”.

    1. Right but youre a known, boring bloviator and liar.

    2. then that’s your new worst case scenario

      Isn’t the worst case scenario something closer to “get a cut on your hand and die of sepsis”?

      Look, I also like going out into the wilderness (on my feet, not on a bike) and I know how to handle myself well enough. But my ability to survive in the woods for a week is greatly enhanced by things like light weight synthetic materials and portable water filters. People are able to make those things, and I’m able to buy them, because were aren’t trying to be self sufficient. Instead we specialize and thrive.

      1. I don’t think self-sufficiency necessarily means forgoing technology or contraptions unless you invent and build them yourself–although I’m sure purists think of it that way.

        I couldn’t build a solar panel or a rifle from scratch, but having both out in a rural homestead probably makes you more self-sufficient than you would be otherwise.

        If you don’t need the electric company and you don’t need to buy as much food from the grocery store, then you’re more self-sufficient.

        If you’ve saved up over the course of your life so that you can buy an insurance policy that will cover the cost of calling in a chopper over radio or a satellite phone to take you to emergency care from the wilderness, doesn’t that make you more self-sufficient, too? Isn’t that more self-sufficient than paying property taxes and calling 911 for an ambulance?

        1. I don’t think using a helicopter reduce is an example of self sufficiency.

          I get the sense we are using the same word to mean different things.

          1. “Self sufficiency” doesn’t have to be an episode of “Naked and Afraid”. That is an extreme case. Go to another Heinlein example: the homestead on New Beginnings with Dora. Lazarus gives a list of all the stuff that he would ideally like to take, some of it pretty high-tech. Self sufficiency can be more a state of mind than a list of stuff, but it’s stuff you own, or can access, that are not part of a wider societal infrastructure.

          2. Buying yourself helicopter rescue insurance is more self-sufficient than relying on a government service like 911, which is paid for with things like property taxes. If an ambulance can’t get to your homestead or it takes them a few hours to get there, or if you’re depending on the park service or the Coast Guard or some other government agency to come rescue you, you’re not really self-sufficient either. It’s about being able to take care of yourself in an emergency. It’s not about being able to treat yourself for a heart attack or a stroke or after you’ve been mauled by a bear or about being able to dig yourself out of an avalanche and trek 20 miles for help. The people I’ve known who’ve done stuff like this were as self-sufficient as they could be, and they became more so over time–the more they learned.

            Fixing your own car is more self-sufficient than hiring a mechanic–even if fixing your own car means going to NAPA and buying parts that were made by someone else. Building your own car from junked parts is even more impressive, but just fixing your own car is a step in the right direction. Maybe making your own biodiesel is even more self-sufficient still, even if you don’t grow the organic material yourself. Every step in the direction of self-sufficiency seems like you’re moving more towards that goal–because that’s how self-sufficient you want to be. Even if you never get to the point where you don’t need or want anybody’s help to do anything, you can get to the point where you’re at no one’s mercy unless you want to be.

    3. You could just go gay.

      1. Well, Misek says nobody is born that way and it’s a choice, so why not?

        1. How ’bout the joooze? Them too?

  6. Hey, I’m told life is as simple as poking a hole in the ground, dropping in a seed and watering it.

    1. Just as long as you don’t sell it or hire anyone to help you water it because then the IRS, FICA, OSHA, and a smorgasbord of other agencies get involved.

      Oh, and make sure you’re allowed to plant that particular seed. Some of them are prohibited by the DEA, and some of them you may not be allowed to grow on your own property for your own consumption per Wickard v. Filburn.

      Add to that concerns about weather, disaster, pests, weeds, . . .

      No wonder so many people choose the suburbs and wage slavery.

    2. Yeah, right. Even gardening isn’t that simple! Consider soil, water, sun, bugs, funguses in all their many forms, pruning, crowding, and just plain luck.

      Life? Takes even more. But sometimes you make you own luck by trying a bunch of things.

      1. Yeah, saving money on food is NOT a realistic reason to start gardening, unless maybe you consider your time to be worthless.

        1. Gardening, and small farming in general, is a good way to go broke. Pleasant if you enjoy it, but it’s a net negative to the finances. Self sufficiency should be about the ride, not the destination.

          I laugh when I get these ads for $25 worth of seeds that you can store away and have a magnificent garden and keep your family from starving when the stuff eventually hits the fan. Yeah, right. I grew up learning from my father who always had a garden, have been doing it solo for 15 years now (trees 30 yrs) and I find ever more ways to stunt or kill things every year. What I get is good, but you learn not to count on it.

  7. When I was in college I was a diesel, automotive, heavy equipment and motorcycle mechanic, a construction worker who did bricklaying, carpentry, plumbing, roofing, and electrical and concrete work, truck driver, arborist, French and Spanish language tutor and van driver for Penn State, and grew pot. The last one was by far my favorite.

  8. Being a landlord has demanded that I learn a little about everything because a tenant is always asking for something. The line about $20 worth of tools and a youtube video saving you $200 is absolutely true.

    Being an avid computer gamer has taught me enough about some tech issues, too. Fuck waiting for Spectrum or Comcast, or going to the Apple store. People rely on things just working, and when it doesn’t they’re helpless. Take the time to troubleshoot and learn some shit that saves real days and money – as long as you can follow directions.

    1. Building my own computers back in the 1990s early 2000s definitely headed me towards Linux. I still think the pencil trick was one of the coolest things ever:

      “The dots labeled “L1” have a space between them. Each pair of dots going up and down are a set. These sets are called “Bridges” and are the means in which the manufacturer has locked your processor to its given multiplier setting. To unlock your processor you simply create a conductive pathway between these bridges. Since the amount of current required for this procedure is so small, even the small graphite content within a pencil tracing can create this conductive pathway. A popular means to connect the dots is to take a pencil and draw a heavy line between each of the four bridges.”

      You can spend a fraction of the cost of your processor to make it screaming fast as the fastest processors they make just by growing the balls to open your box and using a pencil? That’s freaking awesome!

      There’s something really libertarian about thinking your way through things and not relying on the authority of experts to make your choices for you. You can pay two to three times as much for a gaming rig, circa 2000, by having an expert build it for you or you can learn to build one yourself and use stuff like the pencil trick. Libertarians are breaking on one side of that divide by a wide margin.

      I eventually migrated to Manjaro and away from Ubuntu because 1) I didn’t trust Canonical enough to rely on them (or anyone else who relied on them) after I found out about their relationship with Amazon and 2) Being based on Arch, Manjaro is about as self-sufficient as you can get without going totally do it yourself with Arch.

    2. “The line about $20 worth of tools and a youtube video saving you $200 is absolutely true.”

      I had an HVAC repairmen come out and diagnose our issue as a a compressor going bad. He quoted $400 + labor for a new compressor and said it would take a week before the parts were in. I literally googled the part number off of the bad compressor while we were outside and showed him that Amazon had it for $125 and 2 day delivery. He said, he had to get it through his distributor. I said No Thanks and clicked by. It showed up the next day (beating the 2 day) and with help from Youtube videos on my phone I had the new unit in an working in 2 hours.
      Granted, it came with the bolts mounted backward because apparently it can be mounted in two different ways. And the wiring harness was too short for the alternate wiring, so I had to splice in the wires from my old compressor. But frankly, I saved $275 and had the A/C up 6 days earlier, by just being willing to take the risk.

  9. Everyone specializes to some extent.

    I, Pencil

  10. Not only must individuals specialize. Entire nations must now specialize. All manufacturing must go to certain countries. All finance to different ones.

    So it is written. So must it be done.

  11. I used this quote once 30+ years ago and got my head handed to me for being an elitist snob. Apparently expecting people to be able to know a few basic facts, understand them well enough to apply them, and have the balls to try makes one a bad person in the eyes of many of the one-dimensional individuals we commonly meet in our lives.

    1. Perhaps some people (elitists?) do not want to be judged by criteria that might make them look inferior, or at least lacking.

      1. No, this one was just so into being everyone’s keeper that he had long lost any concept of individual responsibility (if he ever had it to begin with).

  12. specialization and the division of labor has led to the greatest prosperity in human history. why bother churning your own butter?

    1. Then why bother even knowing HOW to churn butter (or better yet, where butter comes from)?

      With enough ignorance, any political fantasy can be delivered by just wishing. (Looking at a photo of Bernie in the video pop-up window as I type this.)

    2. Better butter.

      I prefer homegrown tomatoes, potatoes and beets. Not because they are cheaper, or even because they make me feel self sufficient (which they do), but because the quality of what I make is far superior to what I can purchase. Same deal (around here) for (hard) cider. [But the same would not be true of wine.
      There is a reason that there aren’t many good wines coming out of New England. So I don’t try. Buy what you have to, and don’t feel bad about it, but enjoy what you can do, and take pride in it!]

      1. I should try beets, they’re so expensive at the store unless you buy canned. But my plan is for spring onions, because stores around here don’t carry them.

        I make my own fireworks, because shooting commercial or watching displays is not fun in comparison to DIY. Same with coaching football compared to merely watching. (Did not get similarly jaded from playing rugby; coaching is more involving.)

        Hard cider I did for a year but got tired of it. My own pizza, however, I like much better than what I could buy — except for the sauce/gravy, which I’d still rather not make. I’ve made some pies, but they’re neither better nor cheaper than Shop Rite’s on sale.

        My homemade bubble bath was better than any commercial one, but now that I’m in a house with a water softener, bar soap makes every bath a bubble bath, and rinsing soap from my hair makes one on the bath mat for my feet.

        1. I do not get the cost of beets. They’re no worse than carrots to grow, you can eat the entire plant at any point, and even like my glorified sand box / ash pit. I suspect that it’s just that they are a PITA to peel ( if you don’t know the trick of rubbing the skins off after you cook them), you wind up with hands that look like you just slaughtered a lamb, and it freaks people out to have red piss. As a result, the price is about insufficient demand to support growing more. But consider that in Europe they were grown in massive amount for sugar production for many years.

    3. Specialization is good. Overspecialization is crippling.

      For example, everyone should know some very basic principles of handling their own money, even if they’re not an economist or investment banker. At least know enough to know who to get to help you invest. Know not to loan money to that deadbeat friend of yours unless you’re comfortable never seeing it again.

      1. Never loan a friend money. You can give it to them, and maybe some day they will give it back, or maybe “pay if forward”. But don’t loan it. Friends are too hard to come by.

        1. Don’t loan money or books to friends or relatives. If you want them to read the book, just give it too them.

  13. Why does a plumber cost $150? Because plumbers make $150/hr? No.

    It’s because of the tax man. Your $150 was about $300 when you earned it. The tax man took half. When you pay your $150 to the plumber, he will use $50 for expenses and overhead. He will pay himself $100, and after tax he will keep $50.

    If you both gross $100/hour, you have to work 3 hours to pay for 1 hour of the plumber’s time. That’s why it makes sense to try to fix it yourself: too many greedy hands stealing money whenever there’s a transaction. If neither of you had to pay the tax man, you’d only have to work 90 minutes to pay for an hour of plumbing.

    1. It’s the tax man & the regulatory agencies requiring certifications and site inspections.

  14. “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.”

    And maybe take a crack at understanding opportunity costs.

    1. Heinlein did have his own way of looking at time.

  15. “If the bathtub stops draining, can we try 30 minutes of YouTube and $20 worth of tools before we drop $150 on a plumber?”

    I can only assume Mr. Tucille has lived a rather cushy life to think that this sort of recommendation is in any way new. Plenty of families can’t afford to drop $150 (and that’s a lowball figure in my experience) on a plumber, or even if they could afford it, they know that doing so will make the rest of the month *very* tight financially. They’ll fix or half-ass fix the problem themselves, or maybe get their uncle Bob to fix it for the cost of a case of beer.

    1. One reason plumbers charge so much is that they so often have to start by fixing whatever mess a do-it-your-selfer left.

      But I’ve also seen work by professional plumbers (and approved by a government building inspector) that I’d never allow myself as a do-it-your-selfer to let stand. And I’ve heard of worse – friends bought a new house, and when the water was turned on, it sprayed out of every pipe joint throughout the house. Opening up the walls to properly tighten those joints, and repairing the water damage, cost tens of thousands and delayed moving in by nearly six months.

  16. fix-it list for the electrician picks up a price tag beyond the reach of the budget.

    DO NOT fuck with electrical work if you don’t know what you’re doing.

    1. “DO NOT fuck with electrical work if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

      Basic electrical work is not that complicated. It doesn’t take an expert to replace a faulty plug or switch.

      1. “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.”—George Carlin.

  17. Well, the democrats are coming after you; vote wisely.

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  18. But those aren’t Heinlein’s words directly. He put them in the notes of a 2,000 year old man, and I think what Heinlein meant was that if you have that long to learn things, then you don’t need to specialize.

  19. Don’t worry, we’d never accuse you of being an expert on anything!

  20. “I can’t even claim that I was good at everything I did to stay afloat in Boston—I’d still like another crack at the first floor I refinished. But I was good enough to make a go of it.”

    Good enough was the whole point.

  21. What a lovely story — Is there a political point we can argue about? 🙂
    How about a closing statement of, “Independence and Individuality is a great concept not to be voted away by the ‘mob’ foundation.”

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