Tony Wolski

Generalisation, specialisation and financial independence


I’ve been reading about financial independence a lot lately. I like to think of myself as temporarily financially independent — I’m 3.5 months into a sabbatical and have enough money saved to not have to worry about working for at least another year. One of the better books I’ve read on the subject of FI is Early Retirement Extreme. It’s a gold mine of strategies, tactics and principles to help you achieve FI, and personally, forced me to re-think my place in the world and how I want to spend my time in it.

An important ideal brought up in ERE is that of the Renaissance man; one who strives to develop his abilities to their full extent in many areas of life. A Renaissance man, Fisker explains, obtains knowledge in a wide range of subjects and excels at many different things. He is a polymath, a jack-of-all-trades. “The Renaissance man is capable of many different things and doesn’t restrict himself to vocational skills. He does his own taxes and researches his own investments. He can fix a computer or a broken appliance. He knows how to drive and fix a car, but he has enough time and athletic ability to ride his bicycle 20 miles instead, or run five miles to get groceries. He can play an instrument, dance, paint, or write creatively. He can recreate interesting meals from scratch rather than recipe." One of the many advantages of becoming a Renaissance man, Fisker explains, is that you become less reliant on outsourcing your life and operations, which keeps you in paid employment (a Salary man).

In other words, to achieve financial independence it is desirable to be a generalist.

I was really taken with the idea and quickly decided it was in my best interests to become a Renaissance man. I attacked DIY with vigour, doing things I normally would have outsourced, like plumbing, bike repair, and structural work on my garage. Small steps, but I was on my way. And it is indeed satisfying to nut something out on your own and work with your hands, rather than fall back to the default of “I can’t do that, better get a professional in.” In my mind it was only a matter of time before I would be found tending a self-sustaining garden outside my off-the-grid house in the woods, built with my own bare hands.

Not long after reading ERE my FI research led me to The Mad Fientist, and in particular an interview with Cal Newport, the successful author and blogger (among other successful endeavours). My interest peaked when the discussion drifted to Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, specifically in the context of reaching FI. Newport says “Skill is your greatest weapon. If you relentlessly hone a skill that is very valuable, that is your strongest weapon in trying to give yourself financial options. You can generate more money, autonomy and leverage; flexibility over when, where and how you work." This, too, seemed compelling advice: If your goal is financial independence, get really good at something the market values, earn more and invest more.

In other words, to achieve financial independence it is desirable to be a specialist.

What is striking — apart from how easily persuaded I am — is that these two obviously very bright men appear to have very conflicting views. One argues that we should focus our efforts on learning a broad range of subjects and developing a wide range of skills. The other believes one should relentlessly hone a single skill with the aim of mastering it. One argues in favour of generalisation, the other for specialisation.

Initially upon learning about the virtues of being a Renaissance man I convinced myself I should follow this path. But as the weeks and months of my sabbatical passed by — even before this conflict arose — a lingering thought kept cropping up: how would I reach FI within my desired timeframe focussing solely on the Renaissance ideal and becoming a generalist? Where would my financial offense (accumulation) come from? Sure, I would have an amazing defensive financial game - keeping my expenses low - by going the Renaissance route, but in forfeiting my already hard-won skills I was sabotaging my end-game.

I spent a good deal of time thinking about this conflict, and now see things differently. I no longer view generalisation and specialisation as mutually exclusive, but rather two ends to the same spectrum. I’m currently in the accumulation stage of my path to FI and therefore must have a means of doing just that, accumulating. Forfeiting my primary skill entirely for some Renaissance ideal is counterintuitive, and heck, even Jacob Lund Fisker — the author of ERE — kept his day job until he reached FI.

So my plan is to continue to specialise — to code, learn, consult, and build products — and gradually slide across the specialisation-generalisation spectrum as I progress toward financial independence. I plan to use the remainder of my sabbatical to master my craft, take on the odd (value-based pricing) consulting gig, and improve my side project, but at the same time continue to learn other skills to complement the defensive aspect of my financial independence game. All with an eye toward building an ever increasing level of control in what I work on, and how and where I work.

At one point in the podcast Cal Newport says “Look at your skill as one of the most important things that you can leverage to gain financial independence." What’s important here is that your skill — your main skill — is one of the most important things you can leverage to gain financial independence; it need not be the only thing you can leverage to gain financial independence.

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