'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.