Do it Yourself!

The phrase “Do it yourself!” can either be a dismissive command that indicates the speaker doesn’t wish to be bothered, or an empowering personal philosophy. All the great geniuses of history were avid proponents of personal independence in thought, word and deed. All the knowledge that we’ve accumulated over the years has been the result of individuals striving to increase their own personal understanding, while most of the technical progress we’ve made has been either the result of individuals to improve on existing designs (for the personal satisfaction of one-up-manship or raw profit).

The great figures of history, inventors such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison, artisans like Leonardo DaVinci, and even artist like J.S. Bach and scientists like Richard Feynman all share a few things in common.

  • They started young.
  • They remained focused and persistent in the face of failure.
  • They were always willing to improve on existing designs.
  • They took no shame in copying (and then improving) existing works.

Like most geeks, I love to do things myself. I’d love to do everything myself, but I just don’t have the time. Convenience is the rot of the modern age. It’s convenient to pull something off the shelf rather than re-invent or even simply re-construct the wheel, but you don’t learn when somebody else does everything for you. Each and every day millions of people the world over do mostly what the did yesterday rather than something new and empowering. I’m not talking about big projects here either, simple craftsmanship is enough. I’m talking about exercising the brain, both creative and analytical skills. Solve a logic problem, sketch a drawing, focus on building the little skills through daily practice, because mastery of the little things makes the bigger things possible. When you do things yourself, you build skills often overlooked in society at large.

Many people see doing things yourself as a waste of time, because of the convenience of prepackaged solutions. Buy furniture instead of making it, buy software instead of programming it, pay for a plumber instead of fixing it. Don’t bother to build handy skills because someone else will always be there to provide it for you (for a fee, of course). I wish I had the time to master all of these skills myself, they’re really fascinating. Being able to do things yourself means that you don’t depend on others. It means you’re able to build custom solutions for your problems; custom furniture for your house, custom software for your computer, having a functional devices on the weekend (when a repairman is not available). It’s your world the way you want it.

Secondly, and often overlooked, is that when you develop these skills you very quickly insure yourself against personal economic frailty. One of the saddest things about our current economic structure is that we actively discourage doing things yourself. This means that, if the economy collapses, we end up with a very large portion of the workforce unemployed, and idle. If everyone had tradesman-like skills, we could all revert to self-employment, selling our services to those who need it. A physicist should be able to get a job as an engineer, an engineer a job as a technician, a technician a job as a serviceman; and the serviceman is always employable, no matter what the economy. If I lost my job today I’d take my skills as a programmer and become a free-lance consultant.

Building skills through a do-it-yourself mentality in a thriving economy is doubly rewarding. You can very quickly establish yourself as a local expert simply through diligence and practice in a field that nobody else is will to spend time on because they’d rather watch a movie or be entertained. When work is entertainment, skills and knowledge become their own reward. Not to do things yourself is to be at the mercy of those who can. So work to be a Morlock.

You can have no dominion greater or less than that over yourself.

— Leonardo da Vinci