How about right here on Earth?
Mark Watney is no normal human being. He’s a NASA astronaut, but that’s not what makes him extraordinary. He’s also an astronaut who’s been left for dead, left to fend for himself on a desolate red planet. He has to deal with the fact that he’s all alone with no way to communicate with earth. Worse even, he also has to contend with the fact that he’ll surely run out of food before a rescue mission can reach him—that is if Mars’s inhospitable environment doesn’t manage to claim him first.
What’s most fascinating about this real page-turner of a novel is what we can learn from Mark’s adventures and how it applies to life right here on earth.
Mark has a number of things going for him, despite finding himself in dire circumstances:
- He has extensive NASA training that has prepared him to address most emergencies.
- He has a background in both mechanical engineering and botany.
- He focuses on what matters most at any given time.
- He doesn’t lose sight of purpose.
- He’s resourceful.
- He has grit.
What strikes me most about the list above is that, at its root, is an aspect of his character that we don’t value much anymore: self-sufficiency.
As I followed Mark on his adventure, I couldn’t help but think about what the average modern person would or could have done in his shoes. The answer? Not much because money and the Internet aren't even options.
Most of us can’t:
- Find our way without the Maps app.
- Spend a day without reaching for our wallets.
- Grow anything (shoot, many of us don’t even cook!).
- Rethink or repurpose common household objects.
- Build anything from scratch (no, assembling IKEA furniture doesn’t count).
- Fix anything mechanical or electronic (how many of us even own tools?).
…let alone manage to be alone to fend for ourselves for months at a time...on a distant planet.
If anyone wants to challenge the above, I welcome it and ask how long you would manage without Mr. Google and/or a charge card coming to the rescue as you try to figure out how to get things done without assistance.
Learned helplessness is becoming the norm.
When we have a problem, the first thing many of us think about is “how much will it cost to fix this” and/or “who can fix this for me”. Then, depending on our means and our patience we pay for it, save for it or borrow for it all to go away. This shortcut to problem-solving applies to just about everything:
- Lodging & home repairs
- Child care
- Health & fitness
We’re hardly pioneers in the traditional sense and it only took a few generations to suck much of our independence right out of us.
Self-sufficiency is priceless.
Being independent—read self-sufficient—means more than just having money. Yes, having the moolah to pay for anything we need or want is great, but there’s often an empty feeling that comes with the transaction. It offers a quick fix but with little lasting satisfaction. Yes, we’re using money we earned and the product is likely better than we could have produced ourselves, at least at first, but it’s just not the same.
Being able to solve our own problems with some head scratching, curiosity, elbow grease, a dose of patience, trial and error, resilience and a small dose of stubbornness brings about a level of satisfaction that just can’t be achieved by whipping out our wallet. It also fuels a belief in oneself that makes us wonder what else we can figure out or create on our own. It boosts our feelings of self-worth, of being "enough", without needing to seek external approval or validation.
In short self-sufficiency adds a richness to life by helping us keep growing, learning, thinking, wondering. It keeps us curious and engaged in our everyday and that makes us happier.
Why is it going extinct?
There are five reasons for our gradual loss of self-sufficiency:
We flock to cities in ever growing numbers. With city life comes access to just about any service we can think of. Have a problem? It’s likely that someone somewhere close by can fix it for you. By providing accessibility to innumerable products and services, urbanization has successfully disconnected us from what it takes to produce what we eat and use in our everyday lives. It has made us demanding and impatient, rude little creatures with little to no appreciation for what we have and what it took to create it.
The Internet is an amazing invention. It has revolutionized how we function in most aspects of life, including how we communicate, work, learn, collaborate, research, purchase, invest, connect with others, find love, share, trade/sell, etc. Unfortunately, it also makes us smug in the belief that we can find out anything and everything we want with just a few key strokes. Who needs to memorize anything anymore? What’s the point of learning something if we can just read up on it when/if we need to? Why bother tinkering when you can watch a few YouTube videos and learn the best way of doing something?
TV is also an amazing invention. It offers easy access to entertainment, keeping us company when we're bored and helping cheer us up when we're down. It also enables us to feel adventure, thrill, love, power, sadness, intrigue, wonder, passion, all without having to create it in our own lives. We can simply mirror the emotions of our favourite characters and situations and call it a day. It's a lot easier than the hard work it would take to get there ourselves.
How young were you when you were asked what you “want to be when you grow up?” We’re expected to declare, and stick to, a specialty for life. That means learning enough to get into our chosen field to begin with and then learning what we need to to ensure we stay relevant and useful in that field. Our efforts are narrow and deep. Any pursuits outside our field is viewed with skepticism, confusion or derision. Why would we possibly waste our time learning or pursuing something new, unless we're forced to change careers? It’s not a good economic decision to learn something that doesn't further maximize our earning power. It's just a waste of time. Isn't it?
The way we measure growth pushes countries to value some activities more than others. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is currently the preferred measure of a country’s economic growth and promoting self-sufficiency runs counter to the objective of increasing a country’s measured output. A country doesn’t get credit for the economic value and enhanced quality of life brought about by self-sufficiency in the areas of:
- Child care & elder care
- Food production
- Recreation & entertainment
- Health & fitness
…just to name a few. Unfortunately, what gets measured gets done. Further, earned income (both corporate profits and individual earnings) is also what fuels government services, including shared infrastructure, social safety nets and other services. There is therefore no incentive for government to promote self-sufficiency. Helping businesses and individuals produce more for others, whether there’s a need for it or not, is a far more lucrative enterprise. Is it any surprise that home economics classes have all but disappeared as a valued requirement in most schools?
Our perceptions around “stuff” has changed. Our appreciation for things we make or produce ourselves has steadily decreased as our preference for the consistency and availability of store-bought merchandise has steadily increased. We use brands to tell others who we are and their power in today’s world is unprecedented. Brands are increasingly about lifestyle as opposed to products.
As we increasingly validate our worth using external cues, we forget—or worse never experience—the intrinsic value to doing things for ourselves, for our own personal satisfaction. Individualism and uniqueness gets replaced with conformism and consumerism. If you want to test that theory, go shopping with any child getting ready for school these days. There are school supplies that you are “supposed” to have and, as I discovered in speaking with my sister-in-law, that message can come as much from the teacher as it does from the child, including brand and colour to ensure every child fits in.
As adults, we’re no different. There are the "right" clothes, the "right" restaurants, the "right" house, the "right" car, the "right" schools, the "right" smartphone, the "right" music and the "right" [fill in the blank]. Fitting in and conformity is just easier to deal with than making a statement just because you want to try something new or different. If you do, expect to have to explain yourself (which is why most of us trying to live differently prefer to stay in the closet).
What can we do to reverse the tide?
We can value doing things for ourselves. Anything. We can start small by learning any life skill that we feel would be interesting and/or useful, like cooking, basic sewing & mending, gardening, personal finance/budgeting, or anything else that might be considered traditional home economics. We can also pick up a book at our local library on just about any topic of interest (health & fitness, small engine repair, personal finance, basic home maintenance). Trying anything new tends to fuel our curiosity in other areas as our confidence increases with every new endeavour.
Once you try something new, I dare you not to think of other things you want to add to your list of personal skills and abilities. I also dare you not to feel more capable and valuable, at least to yourself. As our dependence on external solutions decreases, the world of possibilities grows. Being just a little bit happier is almost inevitable.
Needless to say, “The Martian” had a significant impact on me and has led me to dust off skills I haven’t used nearly enough in recent years such as sewing (thanks to my mother’s sewing machines) and computer skills, and to explore new ones (small engine repair). I might not have to use these skills to survive on Mars, but that doesn’t make them any less valuable.
How self-sufficient are you? What do you want to learn next?
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