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How to be Good at Everything

March 24, 2019
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“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 Heinlein

At eighteen nothing felt truer to me than this quote. Nevermind that I’d only read one of Heinlein’s books and found it so underwhelming that I never picked up another; the notion of a mastery that could encompass diapers, death, and everything in between struck me as obviously being the proper ideal, even as I spent my time doing none of the things on the list save solving equations and writing a single sonnet of such grisly maudlinness that I consider it the greatest blessing of my life, including marriage and the birth of my children, that it has long since been lost.

In the years since I’ve acquired the skills to check a few more items off the list (diapers, accounts, hog butchering, manure), and decided that others are absolutely not for me (invasions, boating, fighting, programming computers). I am now a good cook, and I once successfully set a ewe’s broken leg, though I hope to have a bit more time before finding out how I do at dying.

It’s no surprise that Heinlein, with his predilection for tales of elaborate, fantastical impossibility, would rattle off a list of attributes useful to the swashbuckling hero of one of his stories, and this context makes any actual relevance the quote might have a bit more tenuous - you have to squint yourself blind to see how the sort of omnicompetence required of a two thousand year old intergalactic time traveler might relate to a world shaped by Amazon, supermarkets, smartphones, student loans, globalization, and electoral politics. These, in fact, are built almost exclusively on specialization, and along with countless of their brethren they make it harder than ever to maintain the illusion that something like an adventure involving battles with armies of extraterrestrial bugs awaits very many of us. 

Yet this quote stays on my mind even as I grow more certain with each passing day that I’m unlikely to find myself improvising a splint for a broken arm while captaining a commandeered ship. I still admire (and have found true) the romantic notion that being fully human involves both physical and mental engagement with the larger world, that something is lost when existence overwhelmingly takes place in environments constructed by humans or in digital worlds meticulously tailored to the particularities of each citizen. 

So I propose the following changes, which are really just shifting items on Heinlein’s list from things I can’t do to things I can: a human being should be able to change a diaper, plan a vacation, cut up a whole chicken, drive a manual, grow flowers, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a garden wall, turn off their phone, comfort the dying, fulfill orders, deliver orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze an old problem, pitch manure, tell a story, cook a tasty meal, delight children, terrify teenagers.

Photo Credit - Edmund Brown

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