Updated on 03.11.09


Trent Hamm

The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of the muscle. He has got a fine Geneva watch, but he has lost the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind. His notebooks impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit; the insurance-office increases the number of accidents
Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1841

I checked a book of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays out of the library on my college campus based on the recommendation of a college professor that I had built a casual friendship with. She had seen me reading something different and something challenging in the hallway of the English building on campus and eventually started dropping recommendations my way – and one of the first ones was to “read Emerson, slowly, so you can really grasp what he’s saying.”

There were a dozen essays or so in that collection, but the one that jumped out at me then and has stuck with me through the years is Self-Reliance. It’s not the easiest thing to read, as Emerson uses a style of English almost two hundred years old that seems almost foreign to our natural language today, but there is so much useful truth in there that it’s well worth absorbing.

Simply put, Emerson argues that the more we rely on others, the less control we have over our own life. He looks at that idea from a number of angles: intellectual independence, emotional independence, physical independence, and so on.

Toward the end of the essay (which I quoted above), Emerson makes the point that when we become reliant on technologies that we don’t fully understand, we cede some control of our lives to other people. Think about it for a moment. If you don’t know how to fix the plumbing in your house, you’re not in control of the situation if a pipe blows – the plumber is. If you can’t replace a switch in your home, you’re reliant on the handyman/electrician.

Those reliances are very expensive. Plumbers know that you’re reliant on them for your life to continue as normal, so they can charge exorbitant rates and take their sweet time solving the problem. This costs you money. If a pipe blows at two in the morning on a Saturday and you can’t fix it quickly, not only are you going to have to pay the plumber a huge amount to come out on Sunday, you’re also going to have to deal with the cost of a great deal of cleanup and (possibly) repair of other things in your home.

This extends to every aspect of life. If you know how to cook a good, quick meal at home, you’re not reliant on restaurants. If you grow your own garden (or are at least capable of it), you’re not reliant on the produce section at the grocery store. If you learn how to do most of the maintenance on your car, you’re not reliant on the garage.

The fewer things you’re reliant on, the easier it is to move towards financial independence, too. You can handle emergencies without having to pay for an expert to come in. You can make day-to-day choices that save you money (like preparing food at home). Even better, your overall living expenses go down, meaning the threshold of savings you need to be truly financially independent is lower.

That Emerson wrote about this very thing in 1843 simply shows the universal truth of the idea: self-reliance always pays off.

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  1. PJ says:

    I think you’d like Neil Strauss’s new book _Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life_.

    It’s about one guy’s struggle toward self sufficiency and where it leads him.

  2. Sandy says:

    It seems with every generation, certain skills get lost. My grandmother canned everything, my mother canned nothing. I’ve taught myself how to can (with the help of a 35 year old Betty Crocker book). Same with gardneing, hanging out laundry, baking bread and snack items, walking anywhere, and breastfeeding my children. There was a generation that completely gave in to corporate America and believed what it told them (that if it came out of a box, it was better than if you made it yourself). Well, I’m trying very hard to expose my kids to how to do these old fashioned kinds of things, so that when they are on their own, at least in some areas of their lives, they will be self sufficient.

  3. Self Reliance = Freedom.


  4. Johanna says:

    Well, no, self-reliance doesn’t ALWAYS pay off. Division of labor – the exact opposite of self-reliance – is a big part of why we have the prosperity that we have today. If I’m good at making widgets and bad at making whatsits, and you’re good at making whatsits and bad at making widgets, I can trade you my extra widgets for your extra whatsits and we’ll both be better off – although it may indeed pay off for you to know enough about widgets to make sure that I’m not ripping you off.

    To use a more concrete example, it might pay off for you to have some basic knowledge of car repair and maintenance so that you don’t have to rely on people to do those things for you. But to learn how to build a car yourself out of raw minerals you dig up out of the ground (no fair relying on the existing metalworking industry!) would probably be a tremendous waste of your time.

  5. Gabriel says:

    This is very apt. Lately, whenever I’ve heard discouraging news about the economy or politics, I day dream about owning a plot of land and raising chickens to lay eggs. I find it very soothing :)

  6. Lis says:

    I was laughing as I read this – not b/c it’s a funny post, but b/c I have been doing some serious thinking about this very idea for about a month now, and then “poof” here it is.

    This is such a huge topic, but there seem to be two extremes – On the one hand, I can try to do everything myself, be totally self-sufficient (which I would argue is really almost impossible,). Unless I choose to live a very basic, purely hand-to-mouth existence, this will take up all or nearly all of my time. I will not be likely to have time to read (where are the books coming from?), enjoy art (how am I obtaining it or having time and resources to create it?), travel, etc. I may not be ever be capable of developing the skills to provide myself with indoor plumbing or comfortable clothes or a good writing paper.

    On the other hand, I can spend all of my time at work, doing one fairly narrow skill set all day, every day. I can forget how to do almost anything else, but I will be able to purchase the items or skills that I need as I need them. However, it will likely be expensive, I may not have very much time to enjoy them, as I spend all of my time working.

    Obviously, a balance is needed, but it’s so hard to find. How do you balance teaching your kids basic life skills (good manners, how to manage money, how to shop around for good deals, how to be a good friend, how to write a thank-you note, how to be a good pet owner), “school” skills (math, grammar, writing, reading, science, history, languages), practical skills (working on a car, basic carpentry, replacing a light fixture, more advanced home improvement skills, gardening, sewing, etc), or learning these yourself if your education was deficient??? That’s a lot of time needed! Especially if you are still stuck in the spending all of your time working 8-5 mode.

    Trent makes some great points, but it can be a challenge to find good, comprehensible information, and the time and opportunity to learn a lot of the “self reliance” skills.

  7. SJ says:

    I laughed at the coach part… We built it but can’t use our feet. Somewhat true =D

  8. The Personal Finance Playbook says:

    Our toilet was running a lot of extra water for no apparent reason and we called a plumber recently. He told us we needed a whole new toilet, and it would be the cost of a new toilet plust around $300 bucks. I did some research online and in a book I bought at Half Price book store. I replaced the flapper with what is now known as a flush valve. It was surprisingly easy and only cost me about 30 bucks and a few weekend hours. I don’t fear plumbing and I felt very self-reliant in doing it. (pats himself on back)

  9. Brent says:

    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 A. Heinlein

  10. Andy says:

    Once again, I’m with Johanna. Is reliance on others a bad thing? Isn’t this the basis of civilization? As a pastor, I see how the body of Christ is a community of persons serving one another. No man is an island, yea?

    I’ll go ever further and argue that frugality can be dangerous if it cuts us off from other people. When it works well, commerce can build community and friendships, even friendships amongst nations.

  11. Joey says:

    Count me in as another dissenter. You need to find a balance for everything. Self-reliance is not always the answer; sometimes, interreliance is by far the better choice.

  12. Empress Juju says:

    I don’t find your suggestions to develop solid cooking, gardening, and home and auto maintenance skills to be out of balance at all.

    In fact, the less money I spend crippling myself in the areas of what used to be considered basic self-care, the more I have available to spend on the things I enjoy with the people I love!

  13. Jim says:

    A certain amount of self reliance is good. You don’t want to be helpless. We should all be able to cook for ourselves and mow our own lawns. But I wouldn’t take this too far. Let the experts handle the tough stuff and put your time into your own areas of expertise.

    As Johanna said division of labor/ specialization is usually the most economically efficient. If we all learned the skills to be a competent farmer, rancher, plumber, auto mechanic, electrician, carpenter, small appliance repairman, etc it will not necessarily benefit you in the long run. Most of us would be better off putting our time and efforts into what we are best at and can get the most return for our time and effort.

  14. Rebecca says:

    This reminds me of something I read years ago, about how our fitness is less because of all the conveniences we have now.

    Even the small things like manually having to roll up a window in a car added up to using our muscles so much more than we do now. Then, when you add in the big stuff, like the cars themselves and elevators. Well, we have been getting less and less exercise the more industrialized our world has become.

    That’s why all those studies about Europeans who are so long lived don’t translate to us. It’s not about red wine and olive oil. It’s about the fact that they walk more, ride more bikes and climb more stairs. Because gas costs so much more there and their architecture is so much older than ours.

    It’s not all about diet, although that is naturally a huge part of it too. Asians used to be a lot healthier than us, even though their cities were even more technologically advanced than ours. But that has changed since our fast food culture has become so widespread.

    In every area of our lives, the more we do for ourselves, the better off we are.

  15. Tom says:

    Wow, your professor was right. I had to read that paragraph a few times to get it all in.

  16. ChrisD says:

    I’m also reminded of the post where Trent said that nowadays we have a lot more bills than his parents did and described how they didn’t have water bills because they had their own well, no garbage bills/tax because they got rid of their own garbage etc. I remember thinking then that (effectively) no European can be that independent. We take if for granted that someone comes round and deals with the rubbish. Local councils provide tap water.
    So while I agree with the arguments and examples Trent gave in this article, you can’t apply them to extreme cases, dense populations really rely on divisions of labor, AND economies of scale.

  17. ~_^ says:

    Johanna is right. This is confusing economic costs with accounting costs.

    It may cost you $300 to hire a plumber, or $100 to do it yourself, but the real cost is the opportunity forgone to save that $200. In the simplest case, if that opportunity was taking time off work to read manuals and do the plumbing then it may cost you more than $200 in lost wages. More broadly the cost is the time spent with family foregone, or time spent enjoying hobbies foregone. In other words, it actually costs you more to do the plumbing yourself even if the money you spend is less because in the same time you could be doing things you are more productive at (and getting a better return).

    It’s simply comparative advantage and opportunity cost. Being an island to oneself benefits neither yourself nor others because the pursuit of “control” is illusory and harmful. If we consider being reliant on a plumber in the case that our plumbing may fail a “loss of control” cost, then this cost is made up for many times over by the massive gain that having running water brings. We fundamentally rely on ourselves for everything including plumbing, but we accomplish it not by spending days being poor plumbers, but hours being good lawyers, or software developers or waitresses. Emerson must have missed Ricardo’s memo.

  18. NYC reader says:

    I don’t recall who said, “A smart person knows the limits of her/his intelligence.”

    I don’t plan on performing any do-it-yourself dentistry. I’ve had my fair share of computer disasters to clean up, after well-intentioned but ill-informed people attempted to fix things themselves.

    And frankly, some things are not only better left to professionals, they are often more economical to leave to professionals.

    What’s the return on investment for the tools/training/time needed to perform certain tasks as competently as a professional? What’s the risk involved if the job turns out to be more complicated than your skills can handle? (I charge more for working on a system that has obviously had amateur attempts at repair.) Is there a safety issue involved? (I don’t want to live near anyone who thinks s/he can safely redo the natural gas piping, for example.)

    Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a ton of money invested in professional tools and test equipment, and I’ve done my own plumbing, electrical work, auto repair, and minor carpentry. But there are some situations where it is the frugal option to hire a professional to do the job right the first time.

    That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be an informed consumer and know something about how the work ought to be performed so you don’t get ripped off. The example of the running toilet (comment #8 above) is a classic example of an opportunistic tradesperson attempting to take advantage of a vulnerable and uninformed customer.

    Balance and moderation in all things, Trent.

  19. The number of people who have depended on to build, maintain, and power the vast infrastructure to display your message on my computer screen can be measured in the tens of millions. If you practiced self-reliance, your blogging career would consist of writing messages with a stick in the dirt, and you’d be able to count your audience on your fingers.

  20. Folks can extend this idea to completely facetious levels, but the basic point still stands: knowing how to do stuff only benefits us. Personally, I like having a choice in whether I can do something myself or turn to someone else for help. Without core skills, I don’t have that choice–or that freedom.

    And while money comes into it, it’s also about waking up in the morning and feeling like I can handle whatever comes my way. That feeling alone is worth more than savings!

  21. BJP says:

    Although this is completely unrelated Trent, I just wanted to let you know that I created a little Finance Blog Rap and included your website in it :) Here it is…

    Take a minute ya’ll, just sit right there and listen
    To the finance blog rap that you don’t want to be missin’

    It’s a fun little description about my favorite peeps
    and the stories they write about how to live super cheap

    I’ll start with my boy some know him as J. Money
    He is really well known for making personal finance funny
    Budgets are sexy is the fruition of his work
    where he writes about getting screwed by a wedding photographer jerk
    take a minute or two and sift through his blog
    if you don’t enjoy it then you really…..SUCK.

    Now its only appropriate to give a shout out and a hollar
    to my man Trent over at The Simple Dollar
    It’s a little more academic, but no worries you need not be a scholar
    follow Trent’s advise and you’re sure to end up a finance baller

    The third blog I read is called All Financial Matters
    where JLP serves up financial genius on a platter
    He is especially fond of using charts and graphs
    to demonstrate the way your 401k has been cut in half

    It was to these three blogs my finance cherry had been popped
    put them all together and you surely can’t be stopped
    My websites one chance to live and one day I hope to aspire
    to the ranks of these bloggers money management empire.

  22. Todd says:

    I’m with Johanna, Andy, Joey, and Jim on this one. I actually LIKE interacting with the professionals who fix my car and my plumbing, etc. I value the relationships I’ve built with them; I respect their work and happily pay them for it as I get paid for my work.

    It’s ironic to me that this post on Self-Reliance begins with the advice from a professor (an expert). You didn’t go out and write and print and discover the book yourself before reading it!

  23. Kin says:

    Quoting you, “Emerson argues that the more we rely on others, the less control we have over our own life.”

    Isn’t it ironic that the trend today is, “Rely little on the self and control much of others’ life”?

    My 2 cents.

  24. Jack says:

    Thanks once again. This is what I miss about living in Montana. It forced you to fix somethings yourself.

  25. lurker carl says:

    Mechanically, morally and spiritually; there is a lot to be said for understanding how your world operates. Ignorance is never superior to knowledge. It allows you to minimize disaster and magnify blessings because you can assess and master the portions within your control.

    How far anyone can carry any situation alone is personal. With knowledge, you’ll have the insight to walk it forward or recognize you must obtain adequate assistance. It works with finance, cooking, relationships, health, employment, water pipes and just about anything else you can think of.

  26. guinness416 says:

    This notion is becoming awfully trendy these days – every “lifestyle” section of every newspaper seems to be carrying articles on the subject in the last couple of months.

  27. I totally agree with this: it’s why I want to learn about cars when I finally buy one. Otherwise I know I’ll get ripped off.

    I always wonder what would happen if all humans died except for me and then a group of aliens landed on earth and asked me what was left before the massive wipeout of humans. I would tell them about TV, all our technologies, and everything else.

    They would ask me how something like a TV worked, and I would be like “ummm, cathode ray tubes?”

    The knowledge of even the simplest things would be dead forever.

  28. I find Emerson’s statement challenging, but in a very positive way. He’s asking us to be strong, to put off the bondage the comes from being reliant on other people to do everything for us, and instead to do for ourselves. Though I am a trained economist and understand the principle of specialization and exchange, I have also experienced the soul-satisfying epiphany of learning to do something for myself.

    Your example of the plumber was very good. Not long ago, my washing machine leaked all over the laundry room. My first reaction was to call the repairman, but then I decided to figure it out myself. I got the model number and went online and found a schematic and part number and instructions on how to replace the water pump. I then called a local parts supplier and before I knew it, my washing machine was working like a champ. It probably sounds strange, but after that, I really felt like the washing machine was “mine.” Perhaps more to the point, I felt like my life was mine.

  29. Mule Skinner says:

    I can do many things myself, but I cannot do all things myself. I used to do my own auto brake work, and change the wornout clutch. I wired up lots of electrical stuff. I cook, draw maps for strangers, write limericks, grow vegetables, paint walls, and help high school students understand civics, and sail a boat, a speak a little bit of four foreign languages. And I even wrote a computer operating system from scratch – the world of computers was much simpler then. Afterward I found that not only could I not do everything that was happening in the computer universe, nor know how they worked, or what they did; I couldn’t even keep track of all the names. So I know I can’t do it all myself.

  30. Cory says:

    I knew the “opportunity cost” argument would pop up before I looked at the comments. Unless you would have been EARNING money during that time you dedicated to fixing something it’s a facetious number. I charge $150/hr for high-end computer work. So does spending an hour changing my own oil, filters, etc. cost me materials +$150? Only if I could have actually been billing someone during that time. If I would have been sitting watching TV I come out ahead.

    It’s a good idea to learn enough to know when it’s in your best interest to do something yourself or pay someone. Knowing how to fix a leaky faucet or turn off the main water supply to the house won’t put plumbers out of business and can save you hundreds or thousands of dollars.

    If you have no idea how your toilet works and don’t want to learn then leave it alone. You’ll end up paying that $300 for a new toilet when a $30 part would have fixed it, but you won’t flood your bathroom either.

    If you don’t mind spending a few minutes online and learning something, then save yourself some cash. BTW, if you save $270 after an hour of research and an hour of tinkering then you have earned a REAL $135 an hour. And if it happens again in 5 years you can skip the research, fix it in 1/2 the time tell yourself you just made $540 an hour. ;)

    Being self reliant with the basics doesn’t mean hand digging your own well. I’m not going to try to build my own TV from components but I’m not going to pay the guy from the store $80 to connect a cable from the DVD player to the new TV either.

  31. Your point is lost on many– self-reliance is pqwer . . . I like having the power to control my life.

    Simply put, I don’t like to be helpless and knowledge is power. I have found that there isn’t much I can’t learn how to do—the library, the internet, or the bookstore usually has the answer, or the help of a knowledgeable person at the store. I will add there are some things that I want a pro to tackle due to safety (to borrow from Clint Eastwood, “A man’s gotta know his limitations . . .”) or lack of highly specialized tools.

  32. Linh Vu Hoang says:

    The argument might be helpful in times of crisis since self-reliance can help save $$$. But how practical is this argument at all?… and if self-reliance always pay off? Take the classic example – if the smart lawyer who is also good at typing decides to do all the typing himself instead of hiring a secretary – he can save $$$ for sure. But the time he spends typing, he might be losing bigger $$$ on other potential law cases. Actually, this might go against specialization which is key to boost trading / economy growth.

    Imagine everyone is starting to cook & eat at home – their $$$ saved. But restaurants will close down, jobs will be lost. Sooner or later, the impact will come back to hit you anyway. :)

    Not to advocate spending vs. saving, just to say self-reliance does not always pay off & that’s why we need other people in our life for interdependence.

  33. J. says:

    i think one thing lots of the comments are missing, and it would be helpful in a post like this to bring it up at least tangentially, is the idea of your “actual wage”–the stunningly low $/hour most of us earn after taking into account all the expenses we incur trying to make that money.

    ricardo’s principle of comparative advantage is great–that we can sit around a post about this stuff is a credit to what we gain from labor specialization, since it leaves many of us time for such pursuits. OTOH this example points out something else: there are some things everybody should be able to do (or should at least attempt). using the Internet is one. unclogging a toilet might be another.

    the “actual wage” turns the opportunity cost argument on its head: it’s not how much money could you be making while working instead of attempting amateur plumbing, but how many hours you must work to net enough $ to pay a plumber instead. how many hours of your life have you traded away for that?

  34. Dave says:

    My take on all this is, know enough about things that you rely on that when it’s not there ( broke, distroyed,,,) life does not end. Take the plumber with the burst pipe, you should know how to turn your water off, for if it breaks at 2AM and you call a plumber then $$$$$$, if you call in the morning for them to fix it $$$, if you know all that it needs is a joint fixed they can’t con you into repiping half the house.
    #4 know the basics for most things, then focus on what you are good at, enjoy or get paid well for. if you are lucky all three are the same.

  35. Nick Wright says:

    This is a great post. I like it very much. My wife and I have been moving towards living our lives as self-sufficiently as possible for a long while now.

    I particularly like J’s comment above. I run into this quite often with many of my life choices.

    In particular I own a little less than an acre. I mow the back half of this acre with a scythe. My friend could not understand why I went and paid $160 for a new scythe. You could get a power mower for that much and be done mowing in a third the time, he said.

    Perhaps he’s right. But I don’t have to go out and earn money to run the scythe. With the mower I have to earn money to pay for gas, oil, tuneups, blade sharpening, etc etc etc.

    So while it may take me three times as long to mow my lot with the scythe I do not have to sell myself “off the farm” to do it.

  36. Nicole says:

    See I think this self reliance is what gets us Americans into trouble.

    Other cultures that rely on friends, neighbors, and family are much less isolated. I’m also willing to bet that cultures where people are more interdependent have less debt. (No evidence of this of course, just my limited experience with other cultures.)

    I think many of our money troubles would lessen if we just relied on those closest to us to help us out when we needed it and vice versa. And no, not lending money but really helping out.

    Thinking of having to do everything in this life myself, well, that’s exhausting.

  37. Sandy says:

    I don’t think it’s a matter of learning every little thing about life…I will never fix a TV or a computer…I know that. But I also know that I am smart enough to figure out a few of lifes necessities.
    I think in some ways, just having certain ingredients or tools around is half of the battle. Like Trent’s laundry mix..and bread making ingrdients, and a good laundry rack. Just having basic items gives you power that before you didn’t, and for me, a certain level of self sufficiency is power. I just need a repair person now and again, and that’s ok too.

  38. littlepitcher says:

    It’s true that amateur work sometimes wrecks that thing we sought to repair.
    It’s equally true that we may be able to repair it, repair a portion, or eliminate some potential troubles before the repairer bills us for troubleshooting time.
    And, it’s often true that the “professional” doesn’t fix the problem. My last two calls to a computer repairman were completely wasted. Seems he would rather sell me one of his own machines. He lost that option on the second service call.
    No, we can’t do our own dentistry, but we can forego candy and use the brush often.
    We also can choose to inspect our machinery, learn basic troubleshooting techniques, and utilize that fabulous Internet to cut our costs and losses. Anything I can learn about anything at all may save me money in the future–after all, that sewing course in high school didn’t get used for thirty years, but it was darned useful after 31!

  39. Jason says:

    I’m with the comparative advantage camp here, BUT I also agree with Cory in that most people aren’t working on the weekend when they decided to take the car in vs. changing the oil at home.

    People do all sorts of work after coming home from their jobs (cleaning, cooking, yard work, etc…) and they do it themselves in part because its different from what they normally do 9-5. The change in scenery is more enjoyable than slogging out another 3 hours at work to pay for the maid, cook, and gardener.

    Basically, if you can find some productive things to do around the house that you don’t mind doing, then go ahead and save some money. If the task boils your blood with frustration or is above your ability, simply hire someone to do it. The goal should be to find more work to do that doesn’t feel like “work”, rather than total self-sufficiency.

  40. Kandace says:

    I have to speak up on behalf of plumbers, of which my husband is a very good one. He can work 60 hours a week, then when someone calls on a Saturday with a problem, he may not want to, but will still go out and take care of the problem. He won’t let people go without water, heat or plumbing.

    Many times he goes out and fixes botched DIY jobs, too. He does messy jobs that others, or you, wouldn’t want to do yourselves.

    However, he does help out those who need help. A neighbor needed new pipes in her house but didn’t have the money to pay for it. My husband did the work and we received two beautiful handmade quilts as payment. Another friend didn’t have the means to replace the main waterline. My husband showed the man the work he could do himself, then went in and finished the project for a lot less money.

    One advantage of learning to do things for oneself is the lack of good people going into the trade industry. My husband has a very hard time finding good people to work for him. I believe it is also true for electricians, construction workers, etc. Yes, learning some basic skills will be a good thing to have.

  41. Mister E says:

    I couldn’t agree more.

    The more you can do yourself the better off you are every single time.

    I’m sick of hearing people imply that an expert or professional is required in all areas. Like an average person can’t possibly achieve even the most basic thing for themselves unless an organized body has recognized their ability to do such and/or they do it for a living.

    You don’t need to be an expert in all things but a general knowledge of as much as your brain can hold is always preferable. You don’t need to be able to replumb your whole house but you should be able to replace the ballcock on your toilet or at least know how to shut your water off. You don’t need to be able to replace your own transmission but you should certainly be able to change you oil. You don’t need to be able to make duck a l’orange but you should be able to do a little better than microwave a can of soup.

    Some things of course do require a specialist, as someone else said I won’t be performing dentistry on myself. And of course some things require specialized tools that most people won’t own.

  42. Lenore says:

    Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and his nature-loving “disciple” Henry David Thoreau have profoundly influenced my way of thinking. They were Transcendentalists, believing a divine spark exists within each of us.

    Drawing heavily upon Eastern beliefs, they called the most enlightened among them “Brahmins” after the high, priestly caste of India. It’s no surprise to me that “Slumdog Millionaire” swept the Oscars and inspired millions to hold onto hope during these difficult financial times. We are all, Brahmins and Pariahs, part of this huge, complicated and, all too often, cruel world. Love, faith and kindness are the expression of the divine within us and the very things that ease our struggles and soothe our spirits when life becomes too chaotic or frightening to face.

    To paraphrase Emerson: “We do not own things; things own us.” Material goods and the quest for them can easily take over and ruin our lives. With each new possession comes obligation to take care of it and fear of losing it. Frugality frees us from so many worries.

    Another favorite Emerson quote that I’m probably bungling is: “What lies before us and what lies behind us are small matters compared to what lies within us.” Thoreau said, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; now put foundations under them.” Listen to the creative voice within, believe in it and yourself and do the grunt work it takes to get where you want to be. Carpe diem (or noctem if you’re a night owl) and never stop learning or growing.

  43. almost there says:

    I plan on saving money today, doing the 110 Mile maintenence on my son’s Honda Element. Replace spark plugs and inspect valve clearances. Harder than normal because cylinder header cover must be removed but pretty simple if one follows the Service Manual. I enjoy doing it. Just wish my son were inclined to learn but he has never shown an interest and I won’t force him.

  44. almost there says:

    OOPS, That’s “110K Mile maintenance”

  45. CPA Kevin says:

    I like learning how to do new things to challenge myself. Self reliance isn’t always necessary or a good thing, but having it means you have a choice. Do I want to fix the plumbing myself or hire someone to do it? To me that’s control.

    Self-reliance is somewhat harder in current times however, with increased government regulation. I’m thinking things like building codes, etc.

  46. Jacinda says:

    Nice post Trent. In Character did an issue on Self-reliance a couple of years ago. The articles for it can be found online here and there’s a reading list too: http://www.incharacter.org/toc.php?magazine=10

    I like the idea of being self-reliant when I can be. I don’t mind learning new skills since it’s both challenging and rewarding, especially if it’s a skill that can be used over and over again.

  47. Becky says:

    Oddly, I best learned this lesson from Ray Jardine’s “Beyond Backpacking.” This book is ostensibly about lightweight long-distance hiking techniques. But along the way he talks about making your own gear, choosing certain types of foods for your trip, attitude, and many other things.

    While Ray’s hiking style isn’t for everyone, reading his book and following much of its advice viscerally taught me so much. I experienced the value of practiced skills, and making and intimately knowing my own, simple gear rather than buying something fantastic (and expensive) made by a company for its value in keeping the company in business. My home-made lightweight backpack is not bombproof and covered with fifty straps, loops, and accessories like a top-of-the-line REI pack. But I’m not carrying bombs or throwing my pack off cliffs. My pack is extremely light, works for what *I* take on my favorite kinds of trips, and since I made it, I know how it needs to be treated and how to repair it if anything breaks.

    Since reading Ray’s book about a decade ago, my family’s motto has been “skill, not stuff” and the philosophy has extended into many areas of our lives. My husband built our (small, tailored to our needs) house himself; so when anything breaks, he knows exactly how to fix it. We prepare simple meals from scratch and we know exactly what we’re eating. And on and on.

    Mentors are everywhere. It’s one of the beauties of life.

  48. Debbie M says:

    At first I was going to write a comment like Johanna’s, stressing that self-reliance doesn’t always pay off. But after reading the previous comments, I now want to stress that because we (Americans, anyway) tend to err in the direction of over-reliance on others, and to err very extremely in this direction, it is almost true that more self-reliance always pays off.

    We are getting to the point where we know very little about how things work and where things come from, partly because we don’t want to know, and so service people and manufacturers protect us. Do you remember when you found out where meat came from? And now if we want to know if something was grown without poisons or if the workers were treated humanely, it’s very difficult to find out.

    And we’re getting so ignorant we don’t even know what our choices are anymore. I once taught someone that popcorn can be popped on the stove in a pan. She’d thought you needed a microwave. And who knows what *I* don’t know. I learned another one today: You can mow grass with a scythe. (Now I want to know how!)

  49. Ray Sanchez says:

    Self-Reliance is what separates the truly successful from everyone else. It is a key component to some of the most wealthiest people in the world. :)

  50. Stephan F- says:

    Debbie M – Mowing grass with a scythe is not hard. Getting a consistent height, that is really hard :) First make sure its really sharp, and keep the stone with you as you’ll need to sharpen it every few strokes, depending on the temper of your blade. After grasping the handles strike a comfortably wide stance and stroke quickly enough to cut the grass and not tire you out before you get all the way across the yard.

    Popcorn is better stir fried.

  51. Jim says:

    All things in moderation. Self-reliance included.

    If we take it too far to either extreme it wouldn’t be good. Doing everything yourself isn’t very efficient but doing nothing for yourself is wasteful too.


  52. Carrick says:

    Socrates mentioned something like this once too, I believe: he said he never wrote anything down because then he wouldn’t be forced to remember it, and thus the powers of his memory would degrade.

    I’m really not sure what the value in this (or in that Emerson paragraph you quoted) is. So we write things down to make records of stuff–so what? Then maybe that frees up our minds to remember things that are more important. For things that are actually useful, like sewing, it is too bad that this generation hardly knows anything about it, which is why I’m getting my mom to show me how, but for things like remembering the equinox? Who cares?

  53. Sally says:

    I agree with Sara about the folks extending this idea to completely facetious levels. LOL! I took moderation as being implicit in what Trent was saying – OF COURSE there are trade-offs, an economics of interdependence. So what? It’s still a great blog post.

  54. Debbie M says:

    Thanks, Stephen F, for info on mowing with a scythe. Google is our friend for this, too.

  55. Kathy says:

    Oh man, what a perfect post. I ceded control of the wireless router to my husband. Today when it wasn’t working and I needed to fix it. Boy, I was mad. Because now I have to call him, get a password, use his computer, use a wire, get another password.

    And about cars, they purposely make cars these days so you can’t mess with them without screwing them up. Its not like the 70’s when even a girl like me could change my own oil, the filters, I was even known to work on the engine. No way would I do that today.

    As for sewing. Cripes fabric and thread and time cost more than it does to go out and buy a shirt at target. I think our society has made it difficult to do the things that we used to do for ourselves. I can can fruit, but I can’t find it fresh off the tree where I live. I can fish, but there is no place around here that would support that. I can even hunt. But wouldn’t keep a gun here because of the kids.
    I personally have many useful skills but the time it takes to use those skills are used up at my day job.

  56. Paula says:

    In regards to comment #17:
    “… it actually costs you more to do the plumbing yourself even if the money you spend is less because in the same time you could be doing things you are more productive at (and getting a better return.”

    This may be true, but in some cases (like mine) you simply don’t have the $300 to spend. I can read a book on plumbing from the library in the evening and work on installing my new faucet on a Saturday, saving the money I would have paid a plumber. It didn’t cost me lost time from work (or time with my family since my son assisted me and we both learned). I have a new skill set that I can use over and over now. I got a repair done that I did not have the money to pay for and so would still be inconveniencing me if I had to go without.

    For those people who prefer not to spend their hard earned cash for a variety of reasons, do-it-yourself can be the answer. It’s often ridiculously easy to do things like replace a faucet or fix a toilet – we just don’t realize it yet. I can replace light switches and fixtures, do minor plumbing, paint my house, garden, cook excellent meals – all things that yes, I could pay someone else to do. But I’d have to work a second job to be able to afford that. Doing it myself works for me, and I’m careful to do a quality job. By the way, I’m a 46 year old single mother and my sons think it’s cool that their MOM can do all this stuff.

  57. Sandy says:

    In my job, I had to memorize 8 very different routes for our lunchtime meal delivery service for the elderly in our county. I was training a new driver the other day, and suggested to him that he take good notes and pay close attention, as there are a lot of back country roads we drive to. He kept saying…don’t worry, I have aGPS system that I’ll use. So I let it go. (I’ve never used the GPS, as I need to know in my head where to turn, where the tree or house to turn at is located, etc..) So, the day he went out by himself, he got very lost, as his GPS system failed, and it took him a long time to figure out where he was, and how to get to where he needed to go to for the next 10 deliveries.
    I feel like people are not only losing the ability to do things like their own cooking or plumbing, but in many cases, we actively give it away to a machine. In some cases, it’s ok, but I think we should give pause to new things as they come along.

  58. Nicholas Barry says:

    I have to disagree with you, on two points. (I wrote this before seeing that Johanna, Lis, and perhaps others afterward have made some similar points.) I do agree that self-reliance is often valuable – I fix my own bike, repair my own computer, cook my own dinners, etc. But with many skills, it is inefficient to try to do it yourself. While some people enjoy sewing their own clothes, it is far better for the rest of us to rely on the clothing manufacturers to provide us inexpensive clothing. It would be far more expensive to learn to make my own, since I could spend my time better by working at what I’m already good at and earning money that way. This the same reason I don’t train to become a plumber, or an electrician – I could do it, but it would cost me more in opportunity cost than it was worth. And does it really make sense to give up your watch and instead always rely on the sun for the time? Self-reliance doesn’t ALWAYS pay off, not by a long shot.
    And second, many depending on other people is a way of relating to them socially. My relationship with my girlfriend would be that much weaker if I refused to let her do anything for me. She can sew, and I depend on her for that skill. I depend on her for nutrition information, because that’s her specialty. I rely on her to remember all sorts of details that I know will be safe with her. I also depend on her emotionally, of course. That all strengthens our relationship. Part of this dependence is me ceding control of things I used to handle on my own; another part of it is choosing to rely on her for things I couldn’t do before – my dependence on her opens up my options, and widens my horizons, by giving me access to skills and knowledge I wouldn’t have if I refused to be dependent on anyone.
    I hope you understand that this is coming from someone who is MUCH MORE self-reliant than most of my friends – I’m a total DIY guy – but I think you come across way too strongly in your unconditional praise for Emerson’s message.

  59. Sharon says:

    Mowing with a scythe is good exercise, but consider your rotator cuffs. If you wear them out or tear them in the process, the surgery is very expensive (my bills to insurance in the range of $25,000 without surgeon’s fees) and your arm is out of commission for up to six months, three in a sling at the minimum.

  60. Nick Wright says:

    Sharon, properly used, the movement for the scythe comes from the hips not the arms. ;;)

  61. SLVBug says:

    A few commentators got. As Lenore, Emerson’s work has had a profound effect on my brain (Thoreau is cool too, but just a bit too hippy for me!).

    It’s interesting that “self-reliance”, on the whole, is interpreted with context to only the materialistic. “Save your money! Learn to fix it/build it yourself!” That’s great, but why would I want to save more of something that is well on it’s way to becoming worthless (the US$)? It might have proven worthy in 1909 when a dollar was still worth a dollar, but in 2009 a dollar is worth about $0.05. Here’s my nickel Mr. Plumber, fix my toilet!

    But more than that, what of self-reliance in terms of thought, spirituality, governance, community, law, etc. etc.?

    Take a look around at what is happening in America right now (BTW, I’m not American). It’s citizens are being (and have been for the last 25 years) lied to and robbed from on a massive never-before scale. And…no-one is doing a thing about it. Not one protest, not one march, not one walk-out, not one staged event — nothing.

    The people of Iceland overthrew their government with constant protests of a mere 10-30,000 people. In France, three MILLION (3,000,000!) people held a protest against their government’s economic actions. In America…zero?

    We are still reliant on self-serving politicians to make our important decisions. Re-read the first lines of the quote:

    “The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of the muscle.”

    It will take generations to ween people off of the capitalist teet (whose motto is “All for one and every man for himself!”) and build our muscle as a people who choose our governance, instead of a people who need government.

    That’s my nickel!

    p.s. — scything is best left to THE professional, Mr. Grim Reaper.

  62. Sharon says:

    Thanks, Nick. Didn’t know that about using a scythe. Here’s to exercise! Just don’t cut yourself!
    Sharon, the klutz

  63. Adrian says:

    Interesting read. Thanks.

  64. Sam says:

    The more we depend on machines for daily life the more they can fail us. I work on machines for a living so I might be a bit jaded however, nothing is made to last anymore so I don’t want to depned pn them.
    I’ve taught myself electrical (and also taken careful notes when I’ve had to have a electrician come in). I’ve taught myself plumbing & while I did the drainpipes fine, I kept screwing up the welds on the copper (lack of practice/experience). So I paid a practiced person to come in & do it but because of what I knew from my own attempts I was able to know when one guy was trying to pull one on me so he woulnd’t have to do as much work.

    I had to call in a plumber to fix my toilet (kid jammed a toy in there with the plunger) and I still regret it. That plumber broke some of my tile floor, broke furniture in another room, the toilet now constantly runs (no adjustment I make gets it to stop) and it doesn’t always flush. When I called the plumbing company to complain I was told I’d have to pay for another service call….. I called them out because I’m not physically able to move the darn toilet and boy have I paid for it.
    While it’s ridiculous to spend all weekend fixing stuff, most times it makes sense to do it yourself that way it’s done right – even if it takes two or three tries to get it right. For those who’v said it costs you time away from your family…. I have my son right along with me hopefully learning something for when he grows up.
    He and I have better. more meaningful conversations while working on stuff together then when we go out and run around.

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