The Competent Man

“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
“Time Enough for Love”

19 Responses to “The Competent Man”

  1. Fritzthedog says:

    Words to live by

  2. Gerard says:

    Its always been one of my fav quotes

  3. Keith says:

    Shit, I’ll have to work on my sonnet writing and my computer programming.

  4. Baldwin says:

    Assemble an AR from a pile-o-parts!

  5. Dellis says:

    Diaper – Check
    Invasion – Panty raid of girls cabin in 8th grade count?
    Hog butcher – Negative
    Conn a ship – Negative
    Design Building – Check
    Sonnet – Negative
    Balance accounts – Check (wife gets credit for teaching)
    Wall build – Check (Not super straight, but still standing)
    Bone set – Negative
    Comfort dying – Check…unfortunately
    Take orders – Check (Married 28 years)
    Give orders – Check (Not sure they listen though)
    Cooperate – Check
    Act alone – Check
    Solve equations – Check (Thank God I never had common core math)
    Analyze problem – Check
    Pitch manure – Check
    Program PC – Negative
    Cook – Check (The “tasty” part perhaps a “negative”)
    Fight effeciently – If I do not then I pray I “Die Gallantly”!

  6. Ivan says:

    That is a awesome book. And it totally weirds people out too, hahah.

  7. Luke says:

    A racist perverted old man is not who we should be taking life advice from. Our whole society is built on specialists, and a true generalist can not innovate. Someone who truly believes in not specializing will spend their whole life learning what others have decided is true or correct and will have no time or energy to forge new ground.

    I hear people tout examples of successful generalists, but nearly always they are dependent on an army of specialists under their employ to get anywhere. Society needs generalists but to hold them up as superior is foolhardy at best.

    Specialization is why we aren’t digging in mud with sticks for calories.

    • kemp says:

      Hear hear. Specialisation and division of labor is the very foundation of human progress.

    • AlexC says:

      I disagree with your statement and I will explain why. I also find your ad hominem attack on the original author unnecessary and not relevant when arguing for or against his statement. Let’s debate the topic at hand instead.

      First, it is self-evident that specialization and division of labor is what has allowed humanity to become what it is today. Starting with division of labor into Hunter/Gathering, then into Farmer/Tool Marker, into what we have today, the progress of technology is enough evidence to prove it.

      Humans depend on each other for levels of specialization in various fields.
      What Heinlein was arguing was what was the degree of dependency that is acceptable.

      I am not a surgeon, but that does not stop me from knowing First Aid and owning a First Aid Kit.

      I am not a firefighter, but that does not stop me from knowing fire safety and owning a fire extinguisher.

      I am not an accountant, but that does not stop me from balancing my monthly budget and owning a calculator.

      I am not a police officer, but that does not stop me from training with firearms, owning a gun, and defending my family and I.

      To suggest that an individual person can master all skills and cover all specializations is ridiculous. You and I both know this.

      But to entirely rely on the rest of society for even basic, low-level individual skills, is to intentionally decide the that relationship between you and society will be paternalistic in nature, instead of one of equals.

      Heinlein was not suggesting that everyone become a successful generalist, he was not suggesting that they should MASTER all of these skills, or even that they should be celebrated.

      He simply advised that they should be competent.

      Finally, competency in many skills does not exclude someone from specializing in their favorite skill.

    • Greg says:

      Sometimes even racist perverts can say something profound that should at least be considered, and not written off, just because of who said it. If the “who said it” outweighs the “what was said”, then everything falls apart. Many of the great ideas of history were from people who you wouldn’t want to be left alone with your children.

    • Dellis says:

      Does not even a specialist generalize?

      You stated: “…a true generalist can not innovate.”

      Then stated: “I hear people tout examples of successful generalists, but nearly always they are dependent on an army of specialists under their employ to get anywhere.”

      So the “generalist”, if succesful, knows how to “cooperate”, “give orders” and obviously delegate projects to “specialists” under him or her, correct? Hence they have indeed innovated.

      I don’t see any succesful specialists who have done on it all on their own either but that’s not the context of discussion. Rather it’s about how mankind should have some nuggets of knowledge on a wide plane of things rather than hyper-focused on one.

      In a tight situation having a trauma surgeon might be a great asset but if that’s the limit of his or her skill set it might be more beneficial to have an ER nurse who can cook, repair a generator and hammer a nail.

    • James says:

      Being competent in many things does not preclude excelling in one thing.Only seeing one color of flower isn’t what makes us great.

    • Ed says:

      Ha ha ha! “racist perverted old man”???? Maybe race realist. You must be a cuckold or a cuck-servative. Go pound sand.

    • AbnMedOps says:

      Racist?? Heinlein wrote a number of characters, including protagonists, heroes, villains, and minor characters, of a large variety of races, sometimes long before it was fashionable in science fiction. Johnny Rico in “Starship Troopers” is Fillipino; Rod Walker in “Tunnel In The Sky” is apparently black, and the heroin Caroline is a Zulu; the list goes on. Heinlein also specifically argued AGAINST racism (sometimes clumsily preaching, but arguing none the less). I don’t know where you get the idea that RAH was a “racist” – perhaps you had one of the moron-level teachers who thinks that Mark Twain was a racist because “Huck Finn”, reflecting the language of the early 1800’s, has an escaped slave character named “Nigger Jim” (incidentally one of the most admirable figures in the novel).
      And on a personal level, despite his taste for green-eyed, red-headed fictional heroines, Heinlein is also reputed to have had quite a thing for two of the most well-known black females in the science fiction scene ( a certain TV actress and a certain authoress).

      As far as “perverted”, well, your tastes are your tastes. Heinlein was a well-travelled and open-minded man with an experimental view of the world and the fiction he wrote. As soon as the publishing mores of the past allowed, starting in the late 50’s-early 60’s, he began a more frank and experimental consideration of all-things-sexual in several of his works, as did a number of other science fiction authors. Sorry if this makes you uncomfortable.

  8. Bushman says:

    While it is true, that specialization helps people to evolve and to progress, understanding of specialist and generalist could be quite different.
    Certain people are taking the idea of specialization as an ideology and in the same time – as an excuse for being too lazy or afraid of learning something new. Often, they could refer to “specially trained people”, who should (in exchange for money) solve any problem out of their own scope. However, since jobs are not equally paid, delegating every task (including household stuff) except one you’ve been trained for can cost you inadequate money, leave aside all other factors. If you aren’t lucky to have lawyer’s salary, you simply can’t afford doing things this way. Again, leave aside availability of required services. People don’t usually have servants either.

    Another thing is, talented specialists actually helping other people to be able to perform wider spectrum of tasks more easily. Refusing to accept this help is just stupid. I’m talking about detailed guides, tools and so on.

    Taking anything to extreme is always stupid, potentially dangerous and expensive. Like, I know some guy, he is software engineer and he refuses to learn about even very basic things outside of his job. He can usually afford it, but not turning a blind eye to stuff he doesn’t have to learn intentionally can probably save him several grands per year. For example, last winter he got pipes in his garage frozen and cracked, because he preferred not to know anything about preparing a house for extreme cold and ignored pipe warmer cords and tap covers, literally falling onto his head at local hardware store. Saying “I don’t want to become a plumber” is very dumb of him, since nobody asks him to do that.

    Speaking of innovation – having broader knowledge than others usually helps to innovate, not prevents it. Multidisciplinary engineers are valuable members of many R&D groups, since they know how to connect very different things together. Even simpler cases serve as a proof: many modern mechanical engineers have no idea how actually parts are manufactured (because university program for Masters of Mechanical Engineering doesn’t include Manufacturing Technology), which leads to endless revisions of prints (because parts are not machinable, or it requires redundant expenses) and huge delays in receiving a product.

    • Ed says:

      You are so right, and I’m afraid the generations after us are going to be more like your friend you mentioned above. The “Ideology” part is the key. I also believe that is one of the sub-tenants in Marxist doctrine. Have so many special “worker bees” they will not know what the others do, that way you keep people heads down and in their “own lane” only the controllers see the bigger picture. Pretty sad but I think it is coming. Like Luke up there with his reply. Soft wall flowers that wilt in the face of truth, that are too weak too face the reality of their impotence.

  9. john smith says:

    Looks like an ad for a job I responded to once….