Essential Skills

BoingBoing recently posted a link to 18 Essential Maker Skills and referred to a Heinlein quote:

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.

As a dedicated Jack, the last line resonated with me: Specialization is for insects. I’m reminded of a quote which Google just helped me attribute to Nicholas Butler:

An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing.

There is certainly value in becoming a Master. But the important part of this journey is to never consider yourself a master. As soon as you do, you essentially claim you have nothing else to learn.

I don’t consider myself a master, but I’m well trained as a know-it-all. If you aren’t skeptical enough, you might think I know what I’m talking about. But if you aren’t skeptical enough, you get what you deserve. I’m the sort of person who finds it humorous to say things which are obviously false for ironic effect.

As for the specific 18 Essential Maker Skills presented in the link above, well… “they’re wrong and I’m right,” of course (see “know-it-all,” above). Those skills are all very useful. But if I had to choose only 18 “maker” skills out of everything anyone has ever done or made, I’m not sure those are all the best choices. Many of them are too domain-specific, not universal enough, and too dedicated to the use of special purpose tools.

I’d probably start with the basic necessities in life, and move on from there. Let me be clear: I don’t claim to have all these skills. I only claim that I think they’re important.

  1. Learn how to learn. The most important skill, and the basis for all others, is knowing how to learn new skills. Different people learn in different ways, you need to know what works for you.
  2. Make a meal, from earth to plate. Whether it’s vegetable or an animal, know where your food comes from, and how to get some if you can no longer go to a store. At the very least, learn to make your own meals well enough that you’re willing to eat them.
  3. Make clothing. Again, get as close to the earth as you can.
  4. Make shelter. If I were getting more specific, I’d say “use an axe,” as this is another very basic and important skill, but that may only be because I grew up in the forest instead of the desert.
  5. Set a broken bone. Good idea, Mr. Heinlein. As you can tell: I believe staying alive is important.
  6. Make something from nothing. Become comfortable with thinking and with constructing models and ideas in your mind. Even if your ideas never take physical form, being able to think ensures you will always have something to do. Writing is a good approximation of creating something from nothing. So is computer programming, which is just writing in a different language anyway.
  7. Use tools. The only people likely to read this blog may find the concept very silly, but many people don’t know how to use even basic tools such as a screwdriver, wrench, or hammer. I remember someone who learned how to change a car tire: “That’s it?” Yes, that’s it. Just because someone else says something is difficult, that doesn’t make it difficult. You may just not be skeptical enough: try it and find out.
  8. Fix something. Anything, it doesn’t matter what: make something work, that previously did not.
  9. Make yourself happy.
  10. Ask a question. Learn to figure out what you don’t know, and how to express this in the form of an answerable question.
  11. Tell the difference between success and failure. It’s a lot easier to do well if you can tell the difference between doing well and doing poorly. When starting in a new hobby or learning a new skill, find a master and try to figure out how what makes their work masterwork. As long as you think you’re just as good as they are, you aren’t making progress.
  12. Find the value of things. Value is a very personal concept: the value of something is how much you are willing to sacrifice to attain it. If someone else values something more than you do, they may place a price on it which you don’t want to pay. Become confident enough in your ability to assign value to things that you won’t sacrifice more than you want to, when attaining them.
  13. Take something apart and put it back together again. Make sure it still works, or at least that you know exactly why it doesn’t work anymore.
  14. Formulate a plan. Can you tell someone else how to put together the thing you just took apart?
  15. Follow instructions. When you come back a year from now, can you follow the plan you just formulated for putting that thing back together?

In many ways these skills are restatements and combinations of a few concepts. Learn how to think in the abstract, solve problems, and to map between abstract concepts and real-life objects.