Specialization is for insects — or why knowing a lot matters.

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.
― Lazarus Long — Time Enough for Love (Robert Heinlein)

Heinlein’s character Lazarus Long in the novel Time Enough for Love provides a list of requirements for a competent man. Admittedly, I still have no idea how to conn a ship or set a bone, but let’s not forget this is an idea from one man. Still, I felt that there’s a life lesson to take away from this idea of a competent man as having multiple skills rather than being a limited man.

Before and Now

The world is ever more complex for humans today than it was 150 years ago. Think about it: 150 years ago, a resident in a rural place such as Tennessee did not have a car. He lived on a farm and knew how to run the family business. How far do you suppose this man would travel? Maybe a couple of times out of the state in his lifetime. He knew farming or some type of local trade, and he knew it very well. Take him out of farming and drop him into a city like New York or Chicago, and it would be one hell of a culture shock. There was no 401k or health insurance to think about. If a printing press was available in his town, then the majority of the newspaper content was local news. Life was simple with less available information.

Fast forward to today: Your phone has world news that you check during the day. You can check investment markets in real time on it. You get text messages / emails from your friends that are sent between states. You’re engulfed in a social media game that takes you to a world of its own. You think about what type of car, toothpaste, and food to buy. There are thoughts about the job market, finances, family, personal health, and somewhere in between about the meaning of life itself. The power of choice is immense as it is paralyzing. It’s a complicated world out there.

It’s a different world out there than it was before.

If the farmer of the 1800’s caught smallpox and died, it was sad but accepted. What else could his family do? They did the best they knew and had little outside sources of information available. Fast forward to today: If a person becomes sick due to poor eating habits, it’s harder to blame it on “I didn’t know”. Sure, it’s a complicated world but nature and society don’t care about you not knowing. It will kill you or reward you regardless of whether you know or don’t know. Every action has a cost, and whether we’re aware of it or not, we’ll have to answer for it.

The need for exposure

The internet connects us globally. You’ll work with people of different cultures and understandings. With commercialization, you’ll be exposed to constant advertisements for products that will be begging you to buy them. It’s not just electronic gadgets but also health products, foods, and entertainment.

Let’s explore four major areas of life that fulfill us: The Physical, Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual. Let’s look at why exposure and wider reference in each of these areas are necessary in order to stay strong and understand what’s happening around you.

The Physical

When health is good, you seldom notice it. Think about the last fever or food poisoning you had. Recall yourself thinking along the lines of: “If this sickness passes quickly, I swear I won’t eat here again.” When you’re sick, nothing else matters. You don’t care about work, finances, or how you embarrassed yourself in front of that cute girl at the checkout lanes.

Without maintaining strength and flexibility in your body, the body and mind become lethargic. A training regimen provides a controlled stress on your body. The breath work provides oxygen to your body by blood circulation. Through movement, your lymphatic system runs fluid through your body and cleans it. Your brain produces feel-good hormones dopamine and serotonin, that protect you against mental disorders, but also provide a feeling of vigor and satisfaction. All these things set you up for working on your life’s destiny each day.

“No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”
— Socrates

In my life, I learned that damage makes one wise. I became nearsighted sometime in 5th grade. I had to start wearing glasses and my condition would only worsen with time. I went to the optometrist and he said: “You need stronger glasses, so here you go”. It is a given that a doctor is an authority figure that’s always right. He’s an expert. Sometime in college, I thought that I should look online and see if anyone has found a way to stop the progression of nearsightedness. What do you know…there is such a method! Since I started wearing plus lenses to protect my eyes when doing near-work, not only did my vision improve a little as reported by my optometrist, but the progressive worsening stopped completely!

None of the optometrists I’ve seen have ever mentioned plus lenses for close work, nor have they mentioned the idea of under-correction, which would help retard nearsightedness. Although later in life, I realized that I could have prevented nearsightedness had someone told me about plus lenses when I was in fifth grade. I’m not here to blame someone but this event made me realize the high cost of not knowing, and the importance of being responsible for my health.

I’m here to say that you must know a thing or two about your health and condition before blindly accepting terms of a qualified expert. Your health is your responsibility. Doctors are wonderful and an absolute blessing in our lives when their help is required, but don’t think that because of experts, you can neglect to understand your body and health for yourself.

The Mental

Problem-solving. That’s the value you bring to your community, career, and ambitions. What value can you contribute to another humans. We’re problem / goal oriented people, and problem-solving is the solution. Problem-solving comes from creativity and exposure to different ways of thinking. Getting comfortable and stagnant in one belief or idea will repress the ability to think outside the box or deal with new concepts that emerge.

Don’t let schooling interfere with your education. — Mark Twain

Life is lived in stages: You learn something from high school, a bit more from college, and then some from work experience, from family, and relationships. It is a continual process. I was not the same man throughout my 20’s. I was different at 25 than I was at 21. I was different at 27 than I was at 25. I’m about to hit my 30’s and looking back, I’m under the impression that I’ll continue to change and grow as my experiences shape me. It likely won’t stop. If it does, then it means I’ve grown too comfortable.

An unexamined life is not worth living. — Socrates

The mental aspect includes knowing things that affect you on a daily basis. It means understanding basic finances, and what actions affect your life and how. It means understanding how a basic business works. How about knowing how to read a book in order to grab insights from it. It means knowing how to think critically about an argument.

The Emotional

This one deals with the social and emotional part of your life. We’re emotional creatures first. That’s why every person, including myself, is irrational. Sales and marketing deal with how to invoke certain emotions and seduce another human into taking certain actions. The unaware person is more gullible to buy a gimmick or fall to a scam / cult because they don’t recognize certain techniques that are used on them. A person who recognizes these tools, while not impervious, has a lesser chance of being manipulated. They can almost smell when certain techniques are being used and quickly distance themselves or call the manipulator out on it.

How about knowing how to effectively communicate your ideas to others? Do you know how to lead others without resentment? Maybe there’s a small thing you keep doing that’s leaving a bad taste in someone’s mouth, but you don’t recognize it yet. Social interaction is probably the most important skill a person can cultivate. Remember, it’s not about what you do for people but it’s about how you make them feel.

Is it the tone of voice that’s killing your chances at the interview? Is it your posture? Is it the way you ask questions? These are all valid considerations in social interaction that one must look at.

I remember that my dad gave me Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People when I was in High School. That book was a gamer changer in how I viewed communicating with other humans. I must have read / listened to that book at least 4 times now as it is timeless and I pick up something new from it. While technology evolves quickly, human nature evolves slowly. Emotionally, we’re as irrational today as we were 500 years ago.

For recognizing how influence works, Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion is one of the best works out there.

From a techniques perspective, Leil Lowndes’s How to talk to anyone is easy to digest as well.

That’s just the starting point. Open your mind and heart to understanding how humans interact. It will be absolutely useful to your relationships that are personal and professional.

The Spiritual

I still know nothing and don’t have THE TRUTH. If I told you I did you’d rightly say that I was full of sh**. I admit that whatever I think I know about life might be totally wrong. I’m not afraid to say that. I have limited senses with which I can experience this world and those senses are: seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching.

300 years ago you couldn’t convince anyone that light is just a photon, which is an energy wave. You couldn’t tell a person: “Hey, an invisible wave is right over there and I’ll call it microwave”. They would think you’re nuts and might hang you. Guess what, I still cannot see a microwave with my naked eye today, but with instruments, we know it exists. In fact, we know the mechanics behind it and can model its properties consistently. Those magic waves that I cannot see cook my food. So what makes you think that you’re absolutely right Today if your senses are limited. Tomorrow might prove you wrong.

1,500 years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was the center of the universe. 500 years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was flat. And 15 minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.
— Agent K from Men in Black (1997)

You’re different than I am. What works for me might sound dumb to you. What I do have is an evolving model of how I believe life works. If certain ideas make me happy and produce results in my life, I keep them. If they are not useful, I throw them away. Life is too short to take orders blindly without understanding their impact on you.

It’s good to have some kind of model of life that inspires you and gives you comfort in hard times. A comfortable way to look at death, loss, failure, and misfortune really help when one is experiencing those things. If prevents you from falling deep into the rabbit hole of despair. It allows you to experience those feelings temporarily and quickly snap out of them. That’s the beauty of having a spiritual model in your life.

The key here is the importance of exposing yourself to different philosophies of life. The best class I’ve ever taken in school was an introduction to western philosophy. Eastern philosophy is also worthy of study.

Realize that the questions you ask today are not unique. People thousands of years ago asked the very same questions as you do today: Why do we live, why do good and bad things happen to people, what is justice, what is love, and what is a fulfilling life. Why not stand on the shoulder of giants that came before you and see how they thought before making your own decision. The study of philosophy is satisfying because it has the potential to expand your horizons and evolve your model of life. More importantly, you’ll see the evolution of human thinking. Understanding its evolution is probably the most important thing you’ll get out of philosophy. You’ll understand where kind ideas evolved from and how barbaric ideas such as the sacrifice of human life came to be.

One book on Western Philosophy that I can recommend is Looking at Philosophy by Donald Palmer. It is an easy read for people new to philosophy. It has multitudes of illustrations and the writing is kept simple. It’s like the author is talking to his friend about philosophy. It’s a great introduction to Western Philosophy and its thinkers.

There’s show I enjoy watching called Breaking the Magician’s Code. It’s a 1990’s show featuring a masked magician that presents magic’s biggest tricks, and then unveils the secrets behind them. As I watch each trick done, I pause and try to figure out how he does it. Admittedly, I do not figure out most of the tricks. I’m seriously impressed by the illusions. Luckily for me, real magicians like him are honest and tell us what we’re seeing are simply illusions.

Breaking the Magician’s Code

I do find myself thinking: What if I lived 100 years ago and a person came to my village to demonstrate these magic tricks. Instead of saying they are illusions he would assure me that he has unique supernatural powers. I’d probably believe him. It begs to ask, what might I be fooled with today?

Be all that you can be

That’s the US army slogan. It applies to all of us humans. A capable human with multitudes of skills is a good problem solver. He is valuable and is able to help those around him. He understands that the world is a complex place. He understands that if life is difficult right now, there’s a way to solve the problem with an expanded mindset.

Gravity is impartial to whether we know about it or not. If a person believes he can fly and jumps out the 20 story building, he’ll die. Nature will quickly prove him wrong. That person should have expanded their mindset and tested the belief to see whether it produces positive results in his life before mindlessly accepting it. That’s the challenge of life. Expand your horizons and take what works. Throw out what doesn’t.