The Jack of All Trades

by | Dec 13, 2012

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.

-Robert A. Heinlein

I’ve recently spent time with someone I’ll call “Mr. C.” Mr. C is a tradesman by vocation, and “one of those guys” i.e. someone who can do everything, like the skilled human Robert Heinlein refers to.

I’ve seen Mr. C repair broken water pipes, build a charger for 12V batteries, repair a rifle, load ammunition, patch a roof, tend a child, cook a tasty meal, replace brakes on a 4×4, maintain a Harley and a dirt bike, navigate without a GPS, repair a washing machine, rig up a wireless network and repair a Nintendo.

The washing machine incident was insightful. He noticed the washer no longer agitated during the cycle. He took the components apart, noted the parts number, went online and ordered the parts, which were delivered via Fedex the next day. It took him about fifteen minutes to install the new parts (about $8 dollars) and get the machine running again. Total down time for the washer: about 18 hours, most of it overnight.

My observation was that today most people who own washers (probably the vast majority) wouldn’t know how to diagnose a mechanical problem in their washer, let alone dare to take it apart, figure out what was wrong, find out where to get parts, order the parts, and then put it back together again.

A generation or two ago, the skill set of “being handy” or “mechanically inclined” was taken for granted; shop classes were standard in high school and there was something wrong with the kid who couldn’t fix a flat on his own bike.

Recently, I’ve personally witnessed people who don’t understand how to make a fire with tinder, kindling and small bits of wood; people who cannot walk more than a block from their home without Google Maps on their smartphone, drivers who cannot change a tire and householders who would spend $150 an hour to have someone come and look at their washer instead of trying to fix it themselves. All told, Mr. C’s time in the problem was about 2 1/2 hours, or $375 in repair time.

Somewhere along the line the vast majority of us lost the interest in tinkering and problem solving for ourselves; it’s easier (albeit more expensive) to ask or hire someone else to do it. It would have cost at least $375 – $450 to have the repair done unless it were under warranty, in which case it would have cost a significantly greater amount of time.

Here’s my thought for the day: if you couldn’t afford to hire someone to fix things for you, do you know someone that would be willing to fix whatever for you? And if not, could you work the problem yourself? It’s a good thought for the resilience-minded, or so I think.