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You Are Not A Cog

Listen along to this article with additional commentary by author Zack Janson

There is a prevailing belief today that, for some reason, competence comes exclusively through devoting oneself to one particular thing – whether it be an area of study, a sport, a style of art, a language, or what have you. 

Obviously, it can’t be discounted that hours spent are proportional to experience earned – if you want to become an incredible baseball player, the more hours you spend playing the game and practicing its fundamentals, the better you will end up. But a sinister trend that seems to have snuck up on people within the last couple of generations is the propensity for people to avoid branching out into other disciplines, either because of a lack of interest, or because of a belief that being well-rounded is unnecessary.

Family trees are rife with stories from even 60 years ago of men who were farmers, carpenters, local government officials, who might have spoken three languages to some degree aside from their mother tongue to ease communication barriers in the border regions they inhabited. I personally have met old timers who were professional musicians while maintaining highly involved day jobs, I’ve met amateur boxers and tradesmen, men who – despite being white collar estimators or highway cops by day, built their own homes. I have shaken the hands of rotary mill operators with middle school educations who know more about the equipment they run than many mechanics.

Guys like these are disappearing quickly, they are absolutely an endangered species, because for the first time in recorded human history, we just don’t need them. We have a man for every job, and becoming competent in multiple disciplines often seems to be discouraged. “Don’t pour that concrete footing – we have a concrete crew coming to take care of it”.

When we look back on the way people have lived cross-culturally, effectively since the dawn of anatomically modern humans, the sequestering of people into neat boxes of exclusive competence has been relatively unusual. Of course, individual interest, aptitude, etc has always and will always influence success in a given field – the proverbial village will always have a “real” blacksmith whose careful competence with iron exceeds the dinky forges that shod horses on remote farms. 

But for some reason, it’s suddenly become acceptable – even preferential – to stop trying new things, to stay in our lane. We outsource things like basic car repair, like woodworking, or like gardening, to professionals, and certain “recreational” things like sports or art, many of us don’t bother to attempt at all. With professional mechanics, why enrich our understanding of the world around us and the things we use everyday, why invest in our own self-sufficiency? With sports on TV, or the knowledge that surely we’ll never be as fantastic as our favourite athletes or the artists whose speed paintings we follow on TikTok, why even take a kick at the can?

We all need to get over this sort of bullshit.

It’s an unfortunate paradigm for a number of reasons, and it’s downright damaging both to individuals and to society at large, which is quickly melting into a slurry of bug people who know what they’re taught, what they’re good at, and not much else. Human beings, aside from our genetic predisposition as a species to be good distance runners, are ridiculously versatile. It’s how we’ve managed to completely dominate the planet: we can work with just about any set of circumstances in order to meet the world and its many challenges. 

I, for one, found my own early life was marked by the pressure to commit to a skillset. I found my original interest in visual art wane as I began to take music more seriously, never found the time or energy to take sport seriously until my late teens when I began to lift weights, always feeling that my potential was channeled by the expectation that I find a thing or set of things and stick to them. Ironically, while I always felt my energy or focus would be sapped if I strayed too far away from what I felt was my “calling”, the opposite has rung true: the more that I do my best to stay diverse in the commitments I make to my creative, athletic, and professional lives, the more I succeed, and the better I feel, generally speaking.

Elias Lönnrot, the man who compiled the Finnish epic poem Kalevala (a significant influence on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings), was actually a physician by trade in the remote Finnish region of Kainuu. His interest in philology, legend, and myth, led him on a lengthy leave of absence that saw him walking across the Finnish-Russian border region jotting down oral history and folklore. Do you think at any point it occurred to him to stay in his lane? Do you think anybody said “Elias, sit down, you’re a doctor”. Doubtful – but perhaps. Clearly, in the end, Elias said “fuck it” and did what he wanted to do, poured himself into his passion and ran with the burning desire to be more than what he was meant to be. Perhaps his aptitude as a physician, his ability to deal with people candidly as a doctor assisted and informed his interviews with rural people as he collected the stories that went on to inform the Kalevala – often the things you already know can assist your approach to new disciplines. 

Go outside, try something new – your own toolkit of diverse experiences and competences will help you approach things from a different perspective. The bottom line is that man has the capacity to become highly skilled at a wide variety of things, and being able to harness multiple abilities enriches not only the individual, but also the people around him. If you’d prefer to sit indoors doing the two things you were always told you were good at, while you squander your aptitude and your potential standing in the shadow of men who were never told they couldn’t do something (or didn’t care), that’s on you.

I’ll see you out there.

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