You may not be aware of it, but you have thousands of people working for you every day, maybe more. 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 personal assistants, advisers, and household staff. And if you’re like me, the sum comes out 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 interesting things.
You may not be the one 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, right now, working for you. Even I, in a sense, am working for you by creating this article to share with you.
And it’s all thanks to a trend called the division of labor.
The Wheel of Human Progress
Look, I know you’re here for the sexy, sexy totally-not-dull-academic phrases like ‘division of labor.’ You don’t have to hide it. I see you. Alright, here you go…
Division of labor is one of the factors that has allowed humans to flourish as compared to other animals. The idea is that if each person focuses on a specialized skillset (rather than handling everything themselves), then as a collective group, humans can produce more value.
If Jessie goes out hunting, James builds shelter, and I make clothes, we can trade the products of our labor with one another. And we’ll all be better off than if we each tried to do it all for ourselves.
Division of labor creates input-output asymmetry. Each of these things can be produced more efficiently and with better quality by someone who has mastered that skill. And by choosing individual specialties, we can each become a master at our trade.
Continue this trend for thousands of years, and routes to increasingly specialized work open up. Without the division of labor, there would be no room for specialists like scientists, teachers, or artists (to name a few).
If there are only three people in a village, all trying to survive, there isn’t enough stability yet for one of them to be a full-time comedian. But with millions of people dividing labor, that changes. There is enough value circulating that the system now has room for performers. Their survival needs are met through the work of others, and they, in exchange, are able to offer value in the form of entertainment and new ideas.
The Problem with Prosperity
On a macroeconomic scale, division of labor is great. Without this community-driven multiplication of value, humanity would be nowhere near where it is today. We would all be working constantly to meet our individual survival needs, and often coming up short.
But on a personal, individual level, this specialization comes at a cost. Unlike woodchucks, [warning – video link] humans aren’t meant to do just one thing our whole lives.
We are an intensely curious species. We feel a need to constantly grow, explore, and challenge 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 games that are far larger and more complex. This is great for players, who have much more available to 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 great for all of us, but not as great for each of us.
To lead our happiest and most fulfilling lives on an individual level, we need something else in the mix to offset the challenges of specialization.
Self-Sufficiency Has Entered the Chat
We’re not simple machines, each built to do exactly one job. When we do just one thing, we feel like there’s something missing.
I’m not advocating that you eschew specialization entirely. Expertise is a beautiful thing. Our species needs it so that we can evolve. But to keep evolving 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 become able to do more things for yourself. You’re less reliant on the contributions of others.
As an offset to specialization, this has huge 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 that 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.
All in all, self-sufficiency is a deep well of personal gratification and joie de vivre. The pursuit itself brings fulfillment, and it leads to greater versatility and a stronger sense of self.
How to Develop Your Self-Sufficiency
Okay, that’s a lot of background. And I think if I use the word ‘labor’ one more time, I’m going to start sounding like either some sort of communist propaganda or an obstetrician.
An obstetrician, by the way, is a great example of a highly specialized professional. It’s one of countless medical specialties, all branched off from what likely was originally something like ‘village healer’. And it’s all thanks to the division of labor. dammit I said it again, getting so sick of this
Becoming more independent, at a high level, is quite simple: start by figuring out where and how you’re currently dependent on others. Remember from the opening, about the legions of people working for you, to meet your every want and need? Let’s take some of the pressure off those guys, and help you out in the process.
Create Awareness to Make Intentional Changes
Looking out for, and trying to notice all of the places in your life where you rely on the contributions of others is a way to develop your awareness of this trend. And as always, awareness creates the possibility for intentional changes.
Look around during your day and try to identify the times that you consume goods or services that were 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, rather than 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 some of those abilities on your own, has so many benefits I can’t even list them all.
In the end, you’ll not only build self-respect, resilience, and a greater sense of fulfillment, 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 life that is happier, more fulfilling, and more independent. You can make yourself more resilient, and increase your self-worth (and your net worth, winky face). You can save time by doing things yourself, help the planet by reducing waste, and be more prepared for difficult times.
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. Go be an expert, be awesome at what you do, but make some room to diversify yourself, too. 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 pigeon-holed, 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.