Morning Ruminations is a place where I briefly discuss some of the things I think about as I go about my morning routine. These are thoughts, observations, and unrefined ideas, and do not necessarily represent my official stance on a subject.
This morning I watched a video in which Adam Savage discusses his work as a generalist, after a viewer asked if he regrets not becoming a specialist. It got me thinking about my own work history.
I used to think that I hate work. I’d clock-in first thing in the morning, still groggy from dragging myself out of bed at some unholy hour, then spend the day watching the clock, bored out or my mind, begging for quitting time to get here sooner. Then I’d go to bed that evening dreading the fact that I’d have to start it all again in the morning. Weekends were the only thing that I had to look forward to.
However, I’ve come to realize over the years that I don’t actually hate work. In fact, I love working! What I hate is the monotony of doing the same thing over, and over, and over again, for months or years on end.
From the time children first learn to talk, they are continually bombarded with the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?”.
Our entire society is structured around this idea that we have to choose ONE thing, ONE skill, and then spend the next 45 years doing that one thing, until you inevitably either retire, or die of a heart attack.
But what if that’s not how the human mind is wired to work?
Our species evolved in an environment where life was governed by the seasons, and with each season came a new set of tasks. Everybody had to participate. Everybody had to hunt. Everybody had to build shelter. Everybody had to make tools. Everybody had to be a generalist to some degree.
Of course, that’s not to say that people who thrive on being specialists don’t exist. Anthropologists figure that our prehistoric ancestors worked 3-6 hours per day to meet their basic needs. The rest of the day was theirs to do with as they pleased. Many members within the tribe were undoubtedly inclined to use the free time to perfect their craft once the day’s work was over.
I suspect that it would have benefited prehistoric societies to have a mixture of both personality types in their tribes. Generalists to tinker around, and discover new things. Specialists to take those discoveries, and perfect them. It’s what has allowed our species to repeatedly break through the technological and artistic limitations of the day.
However, modern society is structured in a way where everybody is expected to be specialists. Perhaps that’s why there’s such a high rate of job dissatisfaction in the world? Or more accurately, one of the major contributing factors?
I often joke that unemployment is the best job I’ve ever had, it’s just too bad that the pay sucks. When people hear that, they usually just roll their eyes, and think “oh, he’s just lazy”. I’m being 100% serious when I say it, but not for the reasons people think.
I thrive on learning new skills, but perfecting none. It’s why I cook, and roast my own coffee beans, make my own beard oil, and leather notebooks, and candles, and cabinet knobs out of railway spikes, and stone tea light holders. I love variety, and I love the freedom to move on to something new when the current task becomes monotonous. That doesn’t mean that I’m not good at what I do, it just means that I’m not driven to be the best of the best. Not when there’s so many more interesting things to learn.
Unemployment allows me the opportunity to operate in the way that nature prewired me to run, instead of conforming to some corporate structure that forces us to go against our own instincts.
Perhaps the world would be a better place if we structured society in a way that allows people escape the monotony of the corporate workforce, and instead make a living from “gathering skills”, as Adam called it, and being the generalists that many of us were born to be?