I’m not half the man my father is. Dad helped raise three children. He worked for decades. Dad served in the army. He designed and built his own house. He had some help to get it framed in and sheathed and all the help three children could provide. But the amount he did himself is amazing. Dad was an expert rifle shot. He occasionally hunted. Not the sort of hunter who spends tens of thousands on vehicles and guns and seeks trophies. He was the sort who went out with his army-surplus 1903 Springfield with iron sights and made an off-hand shot at a hundred yards to put meat on the table. He was a wizard with a table saw. He was an expert in the photographic dark-room and par excellence at the retouching table. Once when our car was struck by another car, he did the body work and repainted it. He kept me at his side when he repaired his own vehicles. I carefully memorized how to replace a type of fuel pump which is no longer used. When I was young he baked bread and even ground his own flour. After designing and building the flour mill. I have no idea what he could do that I simply don’t know of.
Dad is an exemplar of the Heinleinian ideal of a man who can do everything. Specialization is for insects, indeed. This makes sense because Dad like Heinlein was closer to the frontier than we are today. Pioneers such as Dad’s father and grandfather lived in a time and place of low population. If you needed something done, you did it. Not because you were surrounded by fools – successful pioneers associated with competent people – but because there weren’t many specialists on the frontier.
Alas, the wasp in the ointment is that this is not the way to achieve wealth in a properly functioning economy. Ever since Adam Smith showed the way in 1776 AD, it has been demonstrable that specialization is the way to wealth. In this way Dad’s brother Milt became rich. Milt was a very limited man, but he was an exceptional accountant. He wasn’t really an accountant. He thought of himself as a certified public accountant, but he was much more a corporate auditor or even an executive who advised corporations. In a properly functioning economy good specialists become rich. Specialization is a dream for a lazy man: He need only do his job and hire people when he needs them. A generalist needs great discipline to focus on the right thing at any given time. And after a degree of specialization, the market will help guide you to where your talents are needed, The invisible usher of the market. A generalist must follow his own counsel.
Of course, in an improperly functioning economy the generalists prosper. In times if business downturn specialists cannot afford to hire other specialists. Such times don’t much hurt generalists. They just do what they need to.
It is also more expensive to be a generalist: A specialist just hires help. A generalist must own his own tools. Of course when the tools are needed – say after a disaster – the tools simply are unavailable and the experts vastly expensive. At such times generalists have true wealth if they remember to charge enough.
So does one suggest to one’s children specialization or generalization? Of course Dad did have a specialization. But not only a specialization or a deep enough one to exclude other interests. An overly deep specialization is really a type of ignorance as other interests atrophy. I think generalists enjoy life more because they appreciate more aspects of it. But they can less afford the appreciation.
I suppose it is really a question of societal structure. One is efficient, brittle, and narrow. The other is less efficient, but more human and durable. I suppose we should value generalists more. When things go badly we will need them. I have never had a time when Dad could not help.