The efficiencies of capitalism demands specialization. Adam Smith was one of the first to recognize the power of breaking down work into repeatable steps that can then be improved and perfected. He observed that it allowed a group of people to make tens of thousands of pins per day, versus the hundreds they’d produce if completing the entire process on their own.
But damn, would that work get boring?! Can you imagine being stuck at a station all day cutting the wire to make pins because that was your job? Smith’s observation occurred over 200 years ago, and capitalism has definitely taken it to heart. Rarely can you find a job anymore that isn’t so specialized that you’re not doing the same thing over and over.
I experienced this conundrum when I worked at the consulting firm, Accenture. They were constantly trying to get me to pick my “specialty” so I could get more training and become “that guy”. I could choose between the SAP data warehouse, SAP supply chain, the testing guy or even the project manager who made sure everyone else got their stuff done. It was all very exciting.
I didn’t find much inspiration in specializing. While I was happy to contribute to the larger project and the difference we were making in the IT world (which sometimes meant eliminating jobs by making things more efficient which wasn’t always fun), I didn’t like not being able to touch and feel my work.
We’d do a new “deployment” to add a new field on a website form. While I could see the difference, it wasn’t exactly inspirational.
While I was working in the IT world to make a living, we were also starting side projects in the real world. We renovated our house in New Orleans and did the same in Dallas. When I quit my job back in 2016 to prepare for our Great American Road Trip, we spent three months renovating an old Airstream.
Since we returned a few months ago, I’ve spent time working with my hands and building things. We had a guy cut down a large tree in our backyard while I was working under our carport making small planter boxes and Christmas trees and he apologized for interrupting my “arts and crafts time”!! Not real manly, but I’m okay with it.
That must’ve been the trigger that sent me fully into arts and crafting… why stop at small woodworking when you can move on to candle and chapstick making?! While some are worried I’ve turned fully hippy and will soon stop wearing shoes and growing my hair out… well nevermind, maybe that’s already happening.
What I’ve discovered is I love doing this stuff! It’s very rewarding to think of something to build, plan it, complete it and then touch and feel the end product. While it may not always turn out perfectly, the most important part is learning to do it and seeing it through.
Now, back to Adam Smith. While Smith acknowledged the productive power of specialization, he was also concerned about its impact on the individual. Smith acknowledged that someone who was stuck doing the same simple task over and over has “no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients to removing difficulties… He, naturally, therefore loses the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.”
Wow Adam, really hitting below the belt with “stupid and ignorant”!
But he has a point, we get so stuck in doing our job or our standard tasks, that we often become lazy in everything else we do. Maybe it’s not so much lazy as unimaginative. We outsource everything in our lives to save time – mowing the lawn, repairing the house, working on the car and even thinking – that we don’t experience new things.
We rarely get to build something entirely ourselves anymore.
We’ve spent a lot of time exploring ruins in Utah in the last couple of months and I often think about how the ancients needed to know a little bit about everything – building a house, making tools, scavenging plants for food and medicine, recognizing seasons and so much more. In fact, for much of our species’ timeline, that’s how we’ve functioned.
It’s no wonder we lack fulfillment in our careers that require us to get so dang specialized. We don’t even know where our food comes from anymore, and if I had to live in the woods, I’d probably eat poison ivy.
So how do we combat it? Smith said “virtues of labor” would decline “unless the government takes some pains to prevent it” through moves like education. However, some would suggest that our education system is only designed to make us good workers, so that’s out the window.
You can take extreme steps like we have by quitting our jobs, traveling and adventuring. However, if you don’t have your financial house together or have those things that need your full care, that will be nearly impossible. Instead, focus on things you can do outside of work like arts and crafting. Find things you like doing and learn new ones. Keep experiencing and learning and living. It’s not until we intentionally step outside of our boundaries that we learn how much we can really do.