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December 24, 2023 | Skill Stacking, Part 1: Handymen Will Inherit the Earth

John Rubino is a former Wall Street financial analyst and author or co-author of five books, including The Money Bubble: What to Do Before It Pops and Clean Money: Picking Winners in the Green-Tech Boom. He founded the popular financial website in 2004, sold it in 2022, and now publishes John Rubino’s Substack newsletter.

There’s a debate over the best way to achieve career success: Should you become great at one thing or good at multiple things? The first strategy is obvious — get a Ph.D. in a useful subject and do that one thing better than almost anyone else. But the second strategy — known as “skill stacking” — requires some explanation. How, exactly, would being so-so at multiple things outperform extreme specialization?

Here’s Dilbert creator Scott Adams answering that question:

Tomorrow’s crucial skills

Now let’s apply the skill stacking idea to prepping for what will almost certainly be a complex, challenging, maybe chaotic decade.

Start by imagining a world where public services degrade noticeably, if not catastrophically — the police don’t always come when you call, trash pickup is sporadic, power outages are common — and the prices of many things are exorbitant, making it necessary to keep existing appliances and vehicles running for longer than would be considered normal today. Food isn’t automatically available or affordable, plumbers and carpenters are swamped and unreliable, and so on. In other words, the standard “Welcome to the Third World” scenario.

In that kind of environment — which has already arrived in parts of San Francisco and Chicago and is maybe 40% probable for the rest of the U.S. — is it better to be a psychologist, mathematician, or lawyer who can do one thing very well or a handyman who’s pretty good at 20 or 30 things?

A recent episode of South Park shows what happens to well-educated locals whose advanced degrees don’t help them maintain the basic components of suburban life. Spoiler alert: The handymen become society’s new elites.

Today’s typical upper-middle-class American is embarrassingly close to the South Park parody. That’s inconvenient and sometimes embarrassing now, but it might noticeably lower living standards and even survival odds in a financial crisis. To take just one of a thousand possible examples, picture a multi-week mid-winter power outage where you have no alternate means of heating your house.

Investing in ourselves

The functionally incompetent among us should obviously be skill-stacking to make up for lost time. So make a list of important things you can’t do but wish you could, and start learning the basics, one thing at a time. Remember, you don’t have to master skills like drywall, plumbing, or electrical work; you just need a modest level of competence.

Consider online courses like those offered at Udemy:

About that garden…

Many believe that if the food supply is ever disrupted, they’ll just “make a garden,” and that will be that. What they don’t realize is that successful food production — that is, food in sufficient quantity/quality to sustain a family at a manageable cost — requires an understanding of lots of different things. For instance, entire civilizations of underground rodents are out there waiting to tunnel in and feast on baby potatoes and carrots. Bugs of every imaginable kind that love cabbage and broccoli. Multiple diseases can wipe out a raspberry patch in a single year. Basically, when you start a garden, you’re declaring war on nature, and it takes years of trial and error to reach a workable detente. Or it takes the prepping advice offered by online sources like Grow Network (profiled in this newsletter back in March).

… and some thoughts on self-defense

A chaotic world is a dangerous one, so self-defense ranks high on the skill-stacking priority list. Beyond the obvious 9mm semi-automatic pistol (see Your First Gun), there are non-lethal options like tasers, pepper sprays, and telescoping walking sticks/self-defense batons. If you’re young and limber enough to consider a martial art, Krav Maga is quick, brutal, and designed to get practitioners out of trouble.

Bite-sized pieces

Don’t let what you don’t know overwhelm you. Just start wherever you are and aim to pick up a modest skill every six or so months. Think of it as dollar-cost-averaging for abilities instead of stocks. The goal is to eventually be the kind of person who can get themselves out of most kinds of trouble while helping friends and family do the same.

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December 24th, 2023

Posted In: John Rubino Substack

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