Aztext Press

Life Off-the-Grid

The Downside of Specialization

by Cam Mather

Ever feel like you’re not qualified to do anything? I was reading the employment section of the newspaper the other day and I couldn’t believe how specialized jobs have become. The mind boggles! I’m not qualified to do anything! Most of us are becoming way too specialized and this is not a good thing.

This type of specialization is a trait of a highly functioning and highly complex society and these societies become very tightly wound and not very resilient to shocks. Cheap and abundant energy is what allows a society to become complex, because in our case we can use our “fossil fuel energy man-servants” to do all of our grunt work, which leaves us lots of time to sit around and think about complex things like art and culture and stuff that doesn’t put food on our table. The diesel fuel and natural gas-based fertilizer will do that.

I would suggest that you need to fight the pressure to specialize and become more of a generalist. Now that we’re at or past peak oil our society is going to become much more susceptible to shocks, and the more skills you have to provide for yourself, the better.

Babies have more brain synapses than adults because their brains are still developing. They are still learning and their brain is keeping all their options open by having as many pathways for information and learning open in the brain as possible. As you get older and start to specialize in skills and knowledge your brain starts to “prune” synapses that you don’t seem to use anymore and this is a bad thing. You need to keep those open because you may need them. If you’ve never grown your own food you need to have the ability to develop this skill. If you want to make your home more independent through renewable energy you should be developing the skills to do the installation yourself. I did. I always get a professional to do the final hookup, but I can do 90% of the work myself. It is challenging and takes a huge amount of time to get everything in place that I’ll need, but I continue to force myself to do it. My attitude is if I’m going to live off-the-grid and be reliant on renewable energy I’m going to know how it works and how to fix it.

Next summer I hope to replace the submersible pump in our well. I’ve never done this before and it’s not broken, but it’s old and frankly I find running water an incredible convenience. So I’m going to replace it in the nice weather rather than during a January blizzard and then I’ll never worry about where my water comes from again.

I have my neighbor Ken Gorter to thank for this desire to learn new skills. Ken knows everything practical about electricity and plumbing and cement and while he is always willing to help out, he forces me to learn new skills for myself. Ken coaches me! When the starter went on my truck I told him I was just going to take it to a garage and get it replaced. Next thing I know he had convinced me to buy a reconditioned one and I was under the truck getting instructions from Ken. “Now attach that red wire to the other red wire.” This is functioning outside of my comfort zone, but this is where I’ve spent the last 12 years since moving off the grid. It’s scary but the upside is that it gives you incredible confidence that you can deal with problems when they arise. The fact that that the new starter cost me $150 rather than the almost $500 installed price at the shop was just a bonus.

(Not an actual photo of Cam and Ken working on the truck  🙂

So I suggest you start making yourself a generalist. Act like a two year old and start doing it yourself and see if you can’t resurrect some of those dormant brain synapses. They’re going to come in handy.



  1. Robert Hammond

    As always good advice. I’m looking forward to the columns about the new well pump. Anyone who lives beyond a fire hydrant should know about not only where their water comes from (and protect it) but how it gets to the tap.
    Are you going to use a wind powered pump and pressure system? I would love to put one of those in myself so I’ll look forward to reading about that adventure, next summer.

  2. Rita Marsh

    Unfortunately if you do not know how something works than you are destined to have to pay someone to fix it. Knowledge and voluntary simplicity equals freedom.

  3. Larry

    Acting like a 2 yr old is easy for me! 😉

  4. Daryl

    I’m fairly new to Cam’s blogs, but I really enjoy everything so far. This article reminds me of a quote from Robert A. Heinlein:

    “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.”

    • aztextpress

      Great quote Daryl! Thanks for sharing it.

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