Pay not to know

It’s taken me a while to come to terms with it, but there’s a lot of things I’m not good at. Many of these things I’ll probably never fully understand. Perhaps it’s possible that if I wanted to learn about chemistry or typesetting, I could probably figure it out eventually, because I think I’m a pretty good learner. But I’m not sure it would be worth it for me to commit a lot of my time to improve in areas that I don’t have much natural proficiency, am not that interested in and are unlikely to negatively affect my life in any serious way if I don’t grasp them. What we need to do to achieve great things is figure out what we can do well, what we can do decently and what we need the help of others for.

As citizens of the Western world, we are fortunate in that most of us are in a financial position to ‘outsource’ a lot of activities we might otherwise had to have done for ourselves in previous eras. Generally speaking, we do not hunt or grow our own food, nor do we build our own houses. This specialisation is one of the benefits of capitalist economics. Using money as a medium of exchange means we can do our work in one field and take the product of this effort and exchange it for help in another area of our life. It might not be perfect but it’s served us pretty well for quite a while.

Forgive the reductiveness here, but let’s talk this out. When I get sick, I take some of the money I have earnt from my job and give it to the doctor in exchange for access to his knowledge and time. He tells me what he thinks is wrong with me based on his years of study and hands-on experience. With a bit of luck, I follow his instructions and get better. The plausible alternative is pretty weird - I’d have to maintain a working knowledge base of illnesses, ailments and injuries and the most effective ways to treat them so that when I get sick I can figure out what is wrong for myself and try to fix it. For all of you people who have actually spent time doing this on WebMD, please don’t. It’s a good system because when I’m not sick, I don’t have to read medical journals or go to classes. I do what I enjoy in my spare time and when I need help, I give the doctor fifty dollars to help fix me.

What we are doing when we give someone money in exchange for a service is paying not to know. I may never want to get underneath my car to change the oil or replace my brake pads. Bang, mechanic. If my phone doesn’t work properly, I’m not opening that thing up, I’m taking it back to the Apple Store. If I want to be entertained for an hour or two, I’ll buy a ticket to a movie or concert. When you think about transactions in this way, I think you start to understand the kind of value these people are actually providing you. A lot of these things aren’t cheap if you understand them as an expense, but in a lot of cases, these transactions are subscription fees for your sanity. You pay them so you can do more of what you like to do.

In areas that I care about, I look for someone to do a particular kind of work for me and that I can have an ongoing relationship with. I take all my guitars to the Jim and Brendan out at Cargill Custom Guitars in Seaford. They do excellent work, know what I want, can answer my nerdy questions and give me advice when I need it. They aren’t the cheapest around, but they are experts and my instruments are better after they’ve worked on them. I enjoy playing them more; how much is that worth? It’s both a premium experience and a personal one. For a few hundred bucks a year I get decades of knowledge, great service and tremendously playable instruments. It’s a goddamn bargain, I tells ya.

Sometimes taking the cheap route is the most expensive way. It’s a concept that I’m still not entirely comfortable with, but the economic idea of ‘utility’ as a measure of happiness has some merit. Sometimes the cheap option can be the right one, but if you skimp or cut corners where you shouldn’t, that nagging voice that in your head can get pretty loud and there’s certainly an amount of stress that comes along with that. How much is it worth to you to be able to not have to worry? If you’ve found someone who you trust to do the work that makes your life simpler and easier, give them your money. Understand there are very few one-off expenses in life; like rent or fuel, everything that you care about will continue to take up resources as long as it continues to provide you with value. Removing friction from your life costs money, but it’s probably money well spent.