Everything Man

Random projects from an alchemist's workshop.

Wednesday, 2nd March, 2016

When I was a kid and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be an “Everything Man.” I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I had the idea. Old enough to realize that growing up to be a saber-toothed tiger might be problematic, but young enough that I didn’t see the issue with trying to do everything. Other kids all seemed to want to grow up and be firefighters, or astronauts, or president. Don’t get me wrong, those all sounded like good things, but they were all so limiting. How can you only want to fly spaceships? What about when you want to invent machines or write books or cook doughnuts instead? Clearly it was better to be an Everything Man.

As I got older I more or less forgot about being an Everything Man. I fell into the habit of starting a project, getting super excited about it, and dropping it three weeks later for something equally exciting and completely different. I didn’t have any definite goal, I just wanted to know how all the things worked, and in the process I became sort-of-mediocre at a lot of things. (Sidebar: I never grew out of this pattern, I just managed to get the cycle long enough that I can occasionally finish the projects I start.)

Eventually (through no fault of my own) I wound up in high school. Every year, the University of Vermont puts on an engineering competition for high school students. My freshman year I joined the team for my school. What the challenge actually was is immaterial, the important thing is that the mentor for the team was a retired architect and owner of the World’s Best Basement. Said basement was stuffed with more tools than I had ever seen in one place and every conceivable sort of scrap: old lumber, electronics parts, scavenged motors, plastic sheeting, wire and rivets and zip ties. With a basement like that you could make anything!

I learned three important things during the University of Vermont engineering challenge:

  1. Christmas light bulbs shatter with an astonishingly loud bang when thrown against a hard surface. They also tend to scatter paper-thin shards of glass around said surface.
  2. A very small resistor wrapped around a match head allows you to light the match with electricity. When you run out of very small resistors, a few strands of steel wool work almost as well.
  3. Someday I would have a basement where I could make anything. That was my new mission.

A few years later I discovered a fantastic quote from Robert Heinlein (which to this day remains one of my favorites).

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

At the time I had no idea who Robert Heinlein was, and it didn’t particularly matter; he had precisely conveyed the sentiment of wanting to be an Everything Man. I now had a secondary mission: print out that quote, and frame it, and hang it in my basement shop.

I continued to grow up (as often happens) and became a rather specialized software engineer. It turns out the people who have money want to pay you to be very good at something, and being very good at something comes at the expense of dabbling in everything. But I didn’t forget about Robert Heinlein and the everything-man-basement. I was biding my time.

This week I got a basement.