In praise of the Generalists

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 A. Heinlein

I want to start out by saying that experts and masters in their field certainly deserve the praise society gives them. The Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Muhammad Ali’s of their fields have sacrificed a lot and intensely focused on their craft. When one dives so deeply into one field one can also learn lessons that can apply elsewhere in life, as universal truths reveal themselves that transcend a particular field.

Indeed, specialization of labor has surely made us more and more efficient as people. We have really developed a deep understanding in our particular fields and when working together with other experts are able to produce remarkable results. However, there are also dangers associated with a person over developing in a narrow field without being exposed to a variety of other areas. This is what I want to write about.

In modern society it seems that one can only get ahead if one really specializes in a narrow field and tries to become the best in the world. Renaissance men, like Leonardo DaVinci or Benjamin Franklin, who excelled and expressed themselves in a variety of fields seem to no longer exist and attempting to be one impossible.

We are no longer just doctors, engineers and lawyers. We are so specialized in a particular subset of those professions and thereby often lose sight of the big picture. We can miss opportunities by combining ideas from different fields. This can not only be harmful to success in our careers but also to our health.

Personally, I’ve spent too much time in my head, sitting down, and studying. Neglecting the body by not exercising and moving enough. Sitting too much does a lot of damage. The interesting thing is that as we spend time developing the body our mind benefits as well.

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert makes a great case for the generalist by describing the concept of skills stacking. Instead of becoming the worlds best in one narrow field he suggest that we focus on developing complementary skills that when combined can be world class. Scott ascribes his success with Dilbert not to being the best cartoonist or the funniest person. Instead he is pretty good at writing, pretty funny and a decent artist. Putting those three skills together however is where he really sticks out. There are not that many cartoonist who are pretty good at all three of these categories.

For the past year I’ve lived in Washington D.C. – One of the first questions you encounter here when meeting new people is: “So what do you do?” Of course useful biographical information but too often it leads to judgments of who that person is. We identify with our jobs too much. That is we really believe that what we do to earn money creates an identity for us. It is no longer something we do but something we are. This I believe is really dangerous and unhealthy.

So what I’m saying is that its ok to be a Generalist. You do not have to find your one true passion in life. If one arises, by all means dive into it, but do not force it. You can combine many of them and funny enough if they compliment each other thereby become a specialist in this newly combined specialty.

Pockets of freedom – How to find land for your tiny home/cabin

If you want to build a cabin mostly yourself or with friends and don’t want to hire expensive contractors or be restricted in materials by complicated code compliance, you’ll probably want to looks for land in what is known as “pockets of freedom.”

Pockets of freedom is the name for counties in U.S. States where you can still come in, buy some land, and get started on your cabin build without needing a building permit from the government. I remember calling the county building department and telling them about my plans. At the end of the call I asked what forms I needed to fill out, and the reply was simply: “It’s your land, do with it what you want!”

The big advantages of building yourself are keeping the costs down, the freedom to choose materials, the challenge and adventure of building a house with your own hands.

So whithout getting into a discussion of the usefulness of building permits overall and the safety benefits vs. drawbacks of limiting creativity, it simply makes the process of building your first cabin a lot simpler, faster, and less expensive. Those are all good thing when you are just starting out.

So where are these pockets of freedom?

Generally here:

This map was put together a few years ago by the people advocating sustainable building practices at http://earthshipglobal.com

Some counties might have changed, however it gave me a good starting point. Generally the western U.S. is less restrictive and of course away from metropolitan areas. Once you decide on a general area, you can call the the county office directly or try to get more information from their website about the different building permit requirements.

Some building codes have exemptions for buildings under 400sq ft or those that can be classified as sheds. Great, because then you could be Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson. (Just a silly Monty Python reference).

Besides finding a pocket of freedom, there are many other things to consider when selecting your land. Do you want to go off grid or have access to city water and power? What kind of climate/ nature do you want near by? Civilization? Road access? And the list goes on.

For me I found a great spot close to the Appalachian trail on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. It has a lake, a winery, hiking, atv trails, local airport, 40 mins from a decent size city, and easy hookup to water/power. I’ll post pictures and update on the construction process in the next post.

Also for those interested in building a tiny home on wheels. There is a whole different sort of legal issues surrounding those type of builds. I’ll give my opinion on those and how to rent land or otherwise find places to park them in another post.