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No Jobs for Generalists

Interestingly (or sadly), having been self employed all my adult life in real estate and construction, I find I am now virtually unemployable. I have broad skills from the years spent wearing many hats. Apparently, however, I do not have the specific skills employers are looking for and I get the “do not qualify” stamp in the infrequent instance when I actually get a response from an employer. There’s no reason to be disheartened! I’ve always felt, the worst thing that could happen to us would be that I would have to get a J.O.B. Clearly that is proving to be the case. It’s actually easier to continue to be entreprenurial- even in this economy. In many (in fact most) ways, any kind of traditional job makes it very difficult to design a lifestyle outside of the mainstream to raise a family and be present in their lives. If we ignore the financial realities for just a moment (I’ve been trying to ignore them for about 2 years now…), I don’t think anyone could argue that two working parents is not an ideal situation for raising children. Given that I’m the primary wage earner, I’m not real thrilled with the prospect of one working parent (me) being away for 40+ hours per week.

That being said, when we had Emma in Atlanta there was NO way we wanted to raise her in the city. I worked in ‘redeveloping’ neighborhoods, which is a euphemism for run down, crime ridden neighborhoods where hope runs high and amenities run low. Don’t get me wrong, we have good friends that chose to make these same neighborhoods their homes and invest in their community for their families and neighbors. I applaud their fortitude and resilience. After 20 years in Atlanta, Hilary and I were both craving a smaller community and a lot more nature.

We moved to the coast where my family has a home and after the financial fall out- moved aboard the sailboat and headed south to find some rhyme or reason to our new opportunity. I say ‘new opportunity’ with the greatest sincerity. I truly believe opportunity is around every corner. Adversity coupled with a creative mind can open many doors.

During our slow trip south we learned a lot of things- about ourselves and about living on a boat. It turns out, this is the life we want to live. No more chasing the jones’s, multi-tasking, technology overload, mind numbing media bombardment, endless phone calls. For the most part, people on the water represented the best part of people, not the worst. It was shocking to us the generosity and kindness we received from complete strangers on our trip. Especially at a time when we were learning (and still are) ‘how’ to live on the water, there were moments that fate stepped in and created a pivotal point in our future that lead us to the here and know due solely to the kindness of complete strangers with whom the only thing we shared was a large body of water.

Having moved to Atlanta to go to the Georgia Institute of Technology and accidentally staying for 20 years, I was also struck by something that is very hard to describe to people. Being on the water, actually living on the water, is ‘real’. That sounds kind of obvious and flippant, but the close interaction with nature and the severe repercussions for ignorance make the daily chore of living very crisp and vividly striking. Ignore some of our technological feats, nature is the same on the water as it was a 100 years ago. Living in a city, there’s so much of the environment that is either contrived or sheltered from the simpler existence following closer in line with nature. It’s very hard to explain, but being on the water, I feel…alive. Every action counts.

I was recently called a ludite by my technocrat friend (take that! Tom Wolf). Not at all. I Love technology, lust after it even. But I like having skills. I can fly an airplane, I can build a house, I can sail a boat, I can work with metal, wood, and to a lesser proficiency fiberglass. These are skills that matter in the real world outside of office buildings and high rises. Technology is a tool. Tools are only useful in the hands of skilled crafts people.

Engineers learn more and more about less and less, while Architects learn less and less about more and more until the Engineer knows everything about nothing and the Architect knows nothing about everything.

America has become a service oriented country after the decline of our industrial period (and our agriculture period and our manufacturing period). I want my children not only to know how to create a pro forma and analyze a financial statement, but also how to play a musical instrument, plant a garden, use the wind, buy and maintain goods that will last, and actually create things instead of just consuming them. I have a great respect for engineers, scientists, and teachers of all types. I also understand that intellectual property is the hot bed for wealth in our country. But without skills, you will be dependent on others for your fundamental survival. Looking back, without regret, a mechanical engineering degree versus an Industrial Design degree would have made a world of difference in my ability to find gainful employment right now. Even a general engineering degree would be a plus. Despite having the knowledge and broad range experience, the title is more important. But we are where we are today and we can only move forward not back.

I find I am an empirical knowledge kind of guy. I like to see how theory can be applied. So much of our education is demonstrated without meaningful application (meaningful as in relevant to the student at the time). The application of knowledge is wonderful and abundant living just outside of the mainstream. You can find excellent examples all around, the application of physics to raise and lower a mast on a sailboat. Kedging off from running aground is another fine example. Diesel mechanics another important example (on our last boat anyways). In this regard, I don’t mind having a broad range of mechanical knowledge. In fact I want to learn more! I guess it’s a curiosity about how things work that makes me a generalist.

Modern automobiles are so technically advanced it’s hard to trouble shoot or perform simple repairs on your own anymore. It used to be the way work ethic and the application of mechanical knowledge was passed down in our family. Fathers would help their sons work on a car. This is how our children could actually learn that they ‘can’ create. Building tree houses, repairing bicycles, are all other forms of showing our children that they can create and produce not just consume. The mystery and abstractness of how things work and are made fade as our children have a personal interaction with the process and find out manufacturing is ultimately a matter of craftsmanship multiplied a thousand times over.

A boat is a great place to raise and educate children. Things break. Things need to be maintained. It’s a small microcosm unto itself complete with systems that both work independently and together to keep us warm and dry while we bob innocently on a huge body of water. The relevant application of knowledge is right in front of you- it just might keep you from sinking!

Being a generalist may not make me immensely employable in the global market, but it sure does make me feel a whole more confident living on a boat.

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