Self-Sufficiency and the Pursuit of Personal Independence

You may not be aware of it, but you have thousands of people working for you daily. There is an army of people working around the clock for your benefit. 

Now, I see you counting up the employees of your business, plus your executive assistants, advisers, and household staff. And if you’re like me, the sum comes to somewhere around zero. Okay, fine, it’s exactly zero. So what are we talking about here?

Consider the phone in your pocket. Countless hands collaborated to design its components, assemble those components, and program the software that makes it do exciting things. 

You may not be filling out those people’s W2s, but they nonetheless work for you. They contribute their time and skills to things that benefit you, and you compensate them for it.

The same is true for the food in your pantry, the car you drive, the clothes on your back, and the building in which you live. There are people all around the world working for you, and I am one of them. Right now, I’m working for you by creating this article to share with you. Maybe you’re working for me, too.

And it’s all thanks to a mechanism called the division of labor.

The Wheel of Human Progress

Division of labor is one of the factors that has allowed humans to flourish compared to other animals. The idea is that if each person focuses on a specialized skillset (rather than doing a little bit of everything), then as a collective group, humans can produce more value.

If Jessie goes out hunting, James builds shelters, and I make clothes, we no longer need to do all of these things for ourselves. Instead, we can trade the products of our labor. And crucially, by each focusing on one primary skill, we’ll develop that skill more and produce better output.

A master hunter can produce more food in three days than three average hunters can do with a day each. The same is true for builders, artisans, weavers, and most other professions. A full-time expert can produce more for the community than a handful of part-time novices.

Extending this trend from prehistoric times to the modern day charts a path of increasingly narrow and specialized occupations. Overall, this allows society to flourish.

Nowadays a relatively small number of workers can meet the basic needs of an entire society, such as food, shelter, and medicine. Because of this, people are able to specialize in art, science, education, and many other fields. The value these people are able to offer society is made possible by the division of labor.  

However, on a smaller scale, the hyper-specialization of our society comes at a personal cost.

The Problem with Prosperity

On a macroeconomic scale, the division of labor is an excellent thing. Without this community-driven multiplication of value, humanity would be nowhere near where it is today. We would all constantly work to meet our individual survival needs, often coming up short.

But on a personal, individual level, this specialization comes at a cost. Humans aren’t meant to do just one thing our whole lives.

We are an intensely curious species. We crave growth, exploration, and challenging our comfort zones to feel happy. 

Video game development is a perfect example. Back in the 80s, when games were far simpler, one person (or small team) would be responsible for everything – writing the story, designing the levels, building the game mechanics, and creating the art. This complex and demanding job was taken on by tremendously passionate creators.

Via the division of labor, companies now make far more extensive and complex games. This is great for players, who have much more they can experience, but workers pay the price of this specialization. I spoke to one developer at a large game studio whose entire job was programming the physics of certain trees in one game. Yep, tree physics.

“This isn’t why I got into this career,” he told me.

We all know at least a couple of people who have at one point felt “pigeonholed” in life, forced into an overly specialized corner where they could no longer explore and learn. Maybe you’ve been there yourself.

Division of labor is helpful for all of us but not as great for each of us. 

To lead our happiest and most fulfilling lives individually, we need something else to offset the challenges of specialization.

Rediscovering Self-Sufficiency

We’re not simple machines, each built to do exactly one job. So when we do just one thing, we feel like something is missing.

I’m not advocating that you eschew specialization entirely. On the contrary, expertise is a beautiful thing that our species needs in order to evolve. But to keep developing on an individual level, we need something else, too: self-sufficiency.

What I mean by self-sufficiency is the ongoing effort to broaden your skillset. By developing new understanding and abilities and using them often, you can do more things for yourself. As a result, you’re less reliant on the contributions of others. 

As an offset to specialization, this has enormous benefits.

In the short term, the effort of developing new skills does wonders for your self-worth. By learning and acquiring new abilities, you are building your self-respect, adding pages to the story you tell yourself. A story that says you are strong, capable, unique, and independent.

In the long term, self-sufficiency leads to resilience, independence, and flexibility to the curveballs life throws at you. You never know what’s coming next on your journey. And you always have a better chance of being ready if you diversify your capabilities.

Self-sufficiency is a deep well of personal gratification and joie de vivre. The pursuit brings fulfillment, greater versatility, and a stronger sense of self. 

How to Develop Your Self-Sufficiency

Becoming more independent is quite simple: start by figuring out where and how you’re currently dependent on others. Remember the legions of people we talked about who work for you to meet your every want and need? Let’s take some of the pressure off those guys, and help you in the process.

Create Awareness to Make Intentional Changes

Trying to find all the places in your life where you rely on the work of others helps to develop awareness. And as always, awareness creates the possibility for intentional changes

Look around during your day and try to identify the times you consume goods or services made possible by others. What do you rely on others to do for you?

From there, you can create more self-sufficiency by embodying a DIY spirit. Pick out some of your wants and needs that you can start fulfilling yourself!

Find more ways to count on yourself instead of other people, companies, or machines to keep your day running. You’ll never do everything 100% on your own, and why would you want to? No one should have to make their own iPhone. So it’s probably best to leave those experts to their trade and buy the product from them.

But there are tons of ways you can be more self-reliant. Taking on some of that work and developing more skills of your own has too many benefits to list. 

In the end, you’ll not only build self-respect, resilience, and a greater sense of fulfillment, but you’ll also save yourself time and money and be healthier and better to the planet. So get started today. Find what you can do to start relying more on yourself!

Build a Mindset of Self-Sufficiency

By adding to your self-sufficiency, you can construct a happier, more fulfilling, and more independent life. You can make yourself more resilient and increase your self-worth (and your net worth, winky face). In addition, you can save time by doing things yourself and help the planet by reducing waste.

There are countless things out there that you can learn to do – or do a little bit better – for yourself and your needs. And then you won’t need to rely on another person, company, or robot to take care of them for you.

This mindset is not in opposition to the specialization that comes with the division of labor but rather supplemental to it. Be an expert, be fantastic at what you do, but make some room to diversify. Feel the rush of developing new abilities.

You’ll always still need to lean on the expertise of others from time to time, too. You don’t need to replace them; just make things a little easier on yourself. And of course, you should always be safe and rely on the experts wherever there’s a serious risk of hurting yourself or others.

A highly specialized and skilled world is a beautiful thing, and we shouldn’t trade it for anything. But if you’re feeling a bit pigeonholed, stuck, or restless in your own sense of self, balancing it out with a little more self-reliance could be just the thing you need. 

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Hey, I’m Sam. I created Smarter and Harder to explore big ideas, both old and new, about building a better life. My mission is to evolve the conversation about personal growth and have fun doing it.

5 thoughts on “Self-Sufficiency and the Pursuit of Personal Independence”

  1. It is interesting to learn about self-sufficiency. We don’t always think about people who work for us indirectly. Just like groceries- someone worked to plant those vegetables and fruits.. Everything just works and fits in well together. It’s interesting to learn about video games. People are all about Animal Crossing right now and that’s a perfect example of labor, haha. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this!

    Nancy ♥

  2. Hi Sam, I am obsessed with your blog! I have been in a complete fog for over a year, the worst bout of depression in my 44 years. Unexpected deaths in my immediate family starting a 15 month wave of despair into my life that only got worse by the day. Today I found this blog and somehow your words on willpower and self-sufficiency and resilliance broke something loose inside me and reminded me that my story is over and can still be written to be grester than it was. IU will always miss my family but they deserve a better memory thwn the way I have been remembering and celebraing (or not) their memory. I realized that I have a purpose and although not quite sure where i am headed, as long as I continue to grow and learn im headed in the righ diresction!!!
    Sam I am excited to take this journey now and look forward to gleaming every word of wisdom from this wonderfully fresh and insightful blog! Thank you so much for sharing this part of yourself.

    • Wow April, what a powerful experience! It sounds like you’ve been going through a tremendously difficult time, and I’m honored to be even a small part in helping you sort out what comes next. My work is all about taking small steps with a positive attitude toward changing the things we most want to change in our lives. Sometimes that means the wonderful things we want to bring in and achieve, and other times it means overcoming the challenges that none of us should have to, but that life throws at us anyway. You have endured so much, and I am proud and excited that you are starting to feel something shift for the better. It takes small steps, one day at a time, but the progress does come. Please come check in soon, and update us on how things have been going!


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