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Generalists and Specialists

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.
Robert Anson Heinlein (1907 – 1988)

In the olden days we were all generalists. Everyone knew how to do everything they needed and it was only a very few people that specialised. Those people, generalists themselves, had particular skills and equipment that enabled them to service their clients and make enough to buy the services that they themselves did not have the time for. Blacksmiths, doctors, priests were some of these specialists and they were spread out over a large geographical area. Not every village or community could sustain a specialist like that.

Here we are now where specialists are the norm. Today you read about a requirement for almost anything and when you look they are expected to have experience of a specific area of their skillset. It is at the stage where a driver has to have pieces of paper before he can drive a truck in a specific industry. It is another aspect of our decline.

After an event though a lot of us will suddenly have to adapt we will be unable to sell our services to sufficient people to feed us. That is assuming that what we do is even required after an event. My personal skills won’t be as they are IT related so I’m either going to have to adapt and get up to speed very quickly, adapt now or hope that someone takes pity on me. I think the last one is about as likely as a politician keeping his promise so I’m left with the adapt or die options and I chose to adapt now and am working on it and have been for some time. Like my grandparents I can do a lot of things not necessary at the moment in preperation for an event.

I’ve looked at Heinlein’s list;

  • Change a diaper   √
  • Plan an invasion   √
  • Butcher a hog   X
  • Conn a ship   √
  • Design a building   √
  • Write a sonnet   X
  • Balance accounts   √
  • Build a wall   √
  • Set a bone   X
  • Comfort the dying   X
  • Take orders   √
  • Give orders   √
  • Cooperate   √
  • Act alone   √
  • Solve equations   √
  • Analyze a new problem   √
  • Pitch manure   √
  • Program a computer   √
  • Cook a tasty meal   √
  • Fight efficiently   X
  • Die gallantly   X
  • Now I’ve not butchered a Hog mainly because I don’t want to nor do I need to do it but I’ve books on the subject and now that I can do the basics. maybe not as efficiently as others but I can learn.
  • I’ve not written a sonnet nor do I ever see myself doing so. Looks like one I’m not really all that bothered about to be frank. I think I’ll survive that one.
  • I think I can set a bone but so far nobody seems too keen on me having a go. Seems like they want one of those specialists to do so but I’m ready if they do. I’ve pretended to set dozens so that makes me better than most.
  • I’ve not had to comfort the dying. I hope I never do but I think I have enough compassion to do so. It’ll not be a good time though.
  • I’ve fought when I was younger but not for a long time and I know I can do it when push comes to shove. Again, I would prefer not to but you don’t always have a choice.
  • Die gallantly? I’m not even sure what that means. I want to go quickly and at a very old age. Nothing gallant about that. I’ll keep my head down as long as possible and make sure the attackers die gallantly instead. Perhaps, it make come down to me or someone I am prepared to die for. Then I hope that will be counted.

As far as the list goes I think that he was not looking at a societal collapse as there are several key tasks missing from his list and programming a computer ain’t going to be on anyones list I suspect.

The bottom line though is he is right. It was generalists that made our society the pinnacle of our civilisation. It is only now with all these changes that our society is going downhill.

We all need to learn as many skills as we can. Well over and above Heinlein’s simple list we need to be able to forage and identify what is food and what is not, shoot and hunt, grow food, treat ailments, help at a birth, help at a death, handle animals, purify water, plan an encampement and defences, kill where necessary, negotiate where necessary and a million and one other things that we don’t need to do now. If you have a viable specialist skill then good for you. Keep that going and make sure you have the tools.

There was a time we walked on the moon. Sure specialists put us there but it was generalists for thousands of years before that that paved the way. Generalists were the common people, people like us who grew food, cooked, mended clothes, built furniture and generally only called on outsiders for medical aid and items we couldn’t make.

Make sure you are generalist enough to enable you to live. Make a list of your training requirements, prioritise them and then make sure you learn. Otherwise you will become food for insects.

8 comments to Generalists and Specialists

  • Kenneth Eames

    We certainly need to be generalists, what used to be called a JACK OF ALL TRADES. Learn as much as you can as soon as possible. This site and it’s forum is certainly teaching me many things. I am grateful for all of this information and realise how much I need to Know. I knew nothing about radio and many other things on the site, the only thing that prevents me learning these new subjects is the lack of cash. Providing that a survival situation does not happen for a good number of years then I will probably Have some cash to learn. Kenneth Eames.

  • Dana

    Though I agree in principle, there will always be a need for the specialist. Man cannot learn everything, there is not enough time to death to learn and master it all. Even in some specialities, not all can learn everything there is to know about that said speciality, so a generalist has no bloody chance whatsoever.

    There are reasons certain skills and knowledge became specialist …… they evolved, updated, became highly skilled and became complicated and needed the full range of the required knowledge.

    Some knowledge can be dangerous, some can make some people think they are experts/masters. One has to know and recognise their own limitations and admit they have little or no knowledge of certain skills. Noone will thank you if you cock-up and maim or kill someone of your group because you ‘thought’ you had the knowledge or skills to perform the task.

  • Skean Dhude

    Dana,

    I agree. However it is only at the extremes we need a specialist.

    We should all be able to;
    Put together pipe for water use
    Treat simple injuries
    Look after livestock

    but it needs someone with more experience to;
    Put together gas pipes
    Treat complications or serious injuries
    Get the best from livestock

    Specialists that we need from day one will be medics and other specialities will come along as we go on.

    Most of us though will need to be generalists.

  • iaaems

    “Specialisation is for insects”.
    I think the insects have been around for a while longer than most – so what do they have that everyone else does not?

    • Skean Dhude

      Funny. When I first read that quote that was the question I asked myself.

      My answer was that they may have been around a long time, being much lower on the evolutionary ladder, but they have not really done anything with that time. They simply live and reproduce. They don’t do anything else where we have the sciences, the arts and have modified our environment to better meet our needs.

      Plus if you seperate a hive up most of them die. They can’t function on their own.

      So I see his quote being related to survivability and adaptability not longevity. Ferns were around a long time before insects yet we don’t class them as a civilisation.

  • iaaems

    I take your point. The insects survive through thick and thin, but it would appear that that is all they do. Having said that they are part of the ecosystem as a whole. Are we, on the other hand, part of the ecosystem or here to exploit it for our own ends? Having a large brain and an associated personality sets us apart from everything else – but it is also a problem as well – getting to grips with this item has been, for a long time, and will continue to be a major occupation until we can all live as one peaceful group. Sounds as though I am preaching – which I am not – I just feel that co-operation in general is far better than confrontation. Yes we all have our different skills and interests which is fine but to survive well we need to co-operate in peace – which is missing in certain parts of the world at the moment.
    Just a quickie – what does ‘conn a ship’ mean?

  • Skean Dhude

    If ants were capable of the thought we did they would have taken over the world as we have. We are part of the eco system but the difference is we can change it to meet our needs. We already support millions more than we could have under the old ways with farming techniques, we generate power from the sun, we do a lot of good things. However, despite our socialist masters, we will never be one peaceful group. It is not in our nature.

    We do cooperate but some won’t and that is human nature.

    Conn a ship. Means to control, command, steer, navigate it.

  • iaaems

    Thanks for the info captain – received and understood – full ahead both!!

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