Henry Ford popularized the notion of specialization and consistency when he developed his assembly line production for the Model T. Instead of having to spend weeks or years teaching an individual how to make and produce an entire vehicle, an expert could train anyone in a week or so to do a very specific task in the production of a car. Thus, individuals only needed the knowledge of a very specific task and they could rely on others to make the other parts of a completed vehicle.
Economists would argue that this specialization is actually quite useful. It can be efficient for a population to have individuals who are very good at specific tasks and then trade their goods or services for products developed by other specialists in their respective fields. Collectively, this leads to a greater range of products and superiorly crafted ones. For instance, someone who has spent six hours a day playing guitar for 25 years will probably be a bit more of an expert than my one hour a month dabbling.
With the invention and circulation of coinage, modern economies have enabled us to store up this expertise and work in the form of money (wealth). The barter system still effectively exist, we are simply bartering our time in the form of wages to gain currency which can be exchanged for other goods or services. I really enjoy the system that has developed in America. Our form of capitalism is one of the most developed systems of currency exchange and wealth accumulation. In America, financial freedom is obtained when you have enough stored wealth to provide you with goods or services for the remainder of your life.
In our society, extreme specialization is often rewarded with high wages. For instance, medical doctors are often paid well for their expertise but the highest wages typically go to those with subspecialties. Because time is finite, we often outsource parts of our life so we are able to concentrate on our area of specialization or what we alone can do best. The irony of this system, while providing us with a high standard of living, actually ties us heavily to our wealth and income. There is a tendency, as wealth increases, to add more and more outsourced services. All of the sudden a maid service, a lawn service and weekly meals out become expectations. This growth in expectations often double the time it takes for families to become financially free.
The Renaissance Man
I consider a renaissance man to be someone whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. In fact, a renaissance man is almost exactly the opposite of specialization that is so popular in America. Often, the focus and dedication demanded of our work lends us to outsource most of our lives. It is often more efficient to hire someone to do all of our non-work tasks. However, this extreme focus often comes at the cost of a basic lack of understanding of simple things in our lives. My definition of a renaissance man may include someone that has the ability to do basic accounting, mow the grass, build a computer, fix a car, cook an awesome meal, brew a great cup of coffee, grow his own food, install dry wall, change a tire, plumb a toilet or fix an air conditioner. In terms of financial freedom these tasks are all non trivial expenses for the average American. When we outsource parts of our lives it can be more efficient but also leads to dependence on the wealth and income we generate.
Ironically, insourcing, or at least developing the skills needed to insource, can actually be an incredible risk diminishing proposition. When you think in terms of income and wealth risk, the ability to be self-sufficient dramatically decreases the need for money.
I’m not arguing that specialization is unnecessary and you should spend your time learning how to do everything. Nor am I suggesting that hiring someone is always a bad idea. I am saying that having a general understanding of how things work and how to learn new things can be a life changing skill. Most specialized workers live with a chronic perceived time deficit. And the idea of spending the time to learn something seems like a time consuming task. Instead of hiring a task out, taking a few hours or minutes to actually learn something can pay a lifetime of dividends.
I have a pretty basic haircut. After an impressively poor haircut from a local barber shop I thought to myself, I bet I (or my wife) could learn how to cut hair better than the person that had just cut mine. My wife is pretty artistic and a quick learner. So we bought a nice pair of trimmers and did a little research and learned that it is actually pretty easy to cut hair. Especially mine. After slow going the first few times she is much better than any salon and can give me the exact look I want at my house in just a few minutes. The two hours it took her to learn how to cut my hair will save tons of dollars and time driving/waiting to get my hair cut by some random person who may or may not do a good job.
One of the added benefits of a renaissance man is the ability to knowledgeably discuss issues or problems when they do arise. If you have spent the time to learn the basics of how a car or computer work, when something does go wrong, even if you decide not to fix it yourself, knowing the terminology and language is also extremely valuable.
There are some tasks that I will probably outsource for most of my life. Even though I may be able to learn a little about them, I will still elect to pay to have them done by someone else. The perfect example would be health care. I’ll do my best to learn about and control all the variables I can (like nutrition and exercise, basic health care) but I’ll readily outsource any advanced medical procedures I need. I still want to learn as much as I can before I have any issues but I’ll prepare for this expense even after I am financially free.
Often people say: “I don’t like doing that, so I hire it out.” At times this is acceptable, other times you might need a catheter and a bedpan. Financial independence and substantially lower lifestyle risk are the motivating factors that allow me to push past most initial objections and try things before I outsource them. I find comfort in the knowledge and skill sets it takes to do a lot of different things. I see self sufficiency as a rewarding challenge and secondly it gives me the ability to do one of my other favorite things: helping other people. A lot of people need help in areas other than finance.
The more you are able to do on your own, the greater financial freedom you possess. Self sufficiency is an empowering tool to permanently lower your need for income and another path to financial freedom.