The Flea Market Economy #2: More Than One Way to Skin a Cat

This weekend’s neighborhood logging party was a perfect example of how our local “Pie Economy” works at it’s best.  Four neighbors came together with their various tools, equipment, and energy to clear this winter’s blow-downs and standing dead timber.  Everyone got tired and everyone got wood for the shed.  We’ll need another day to finish up, I think, but it was a good reminder of how many hands can make light (or, at least, lighter) work.

Thankfully, this isn’t the sort of work that needs doing each and everyday.  Some, of course, would argue that you’d be better off hiring a specialist for every such odd job.  Just go out and earn the money to buy your firewood at retail prices.  Specialization, that’s the key to economic survival, or so we are told.

Now, I might yet have to resort to a bonded tree feller for a massive twinned maple that’s hanging precariously over my workshop, but I’ll still welcome the neighbor’s help when it comes to bucking and splitting that monster and will gladly share the wood from it.   When I don’t have any trees that need to come down, that’s when I call someone for a little home delivery to top off the shed.

That’s just good sense…the very same principles that may best apply to the new economic order we are facing.  In the past, I’ve referred to it as the Flea Market Economy – as opposed to the so-called “free market economy” that we are told we have.  This is the sort of impromptu and adjunct market that has always functioned, even on the fringes of even the most planned economies of the Soviet Union and Communist China.  

Here, in the once-free American economy, the “flea market” was mostly a small town and rural phenomenon.  Given an absence of sufficient full-time employment, hanging out more than one shingle, making a business out of your hobby, and learning to do for yourself (often with the help of neighbors) just makes sense.   

But, I also remember the father of a childhood friend, a highly skilled surgeon of Jewish descent, who – at the insistence of his holocaust surviving father – was also trained as a watchmaker.  His family’s history, you see, had proven the wisdom of having more than one way to “skin the cat”, economically speaking.   Call it hedging your bet.  Call it widening your base. 

Shoot, call it making your life a bit more interesting.  The problem with specialization, you see, is that it can make your life rather one dimensional.  Oh sure, you’re likely to earn more, perhaps even learn more – about that one thing.  But, besides ensuring your potential future obsolescence, what are you leaving on the table?

Consider this recent news:  Roger Ebert recently wrote of his (now foreshortened) “career in retailing”, by which he means that he’d simply added a commercialized layer to his blogging through Amazon’s Associates program.  His basic point on the subject:  “I was trying to make money.”  Hey, nothing wrong with that.  He’s already a successful movie columnist, but it can’t hurt to promote any and all of your various interests.    

There are, of course, many other examples we could cite and at virtually any level of intensity.  But let’s consider the basic economic model of the average multi-national corporation.  They expand into any and every opportunity that comes their way.  And, as often as not, these opportunities are simply designed to help save money with the existing day-to-day operations of their core business.  That sounds reasonable to me. 

It is generally only the “wage slave” that has but one single economic function and one single source of supposed “dependable” income.  Maybe, today especially, that’s not such a good plan.

I’ve had a recurring conversation with several musician friends regarding the difficulty of “making it” in the music biz these days.  Even headline artists, it seems, are reeling with the challenges of the modern digital music revolution.  Does anyone buy albums (or CDs) anymore?  How can you have a “reasonable life” if you’re constantly on the road? 

It is my observation that, if that’s your passion, you’ve simply got to diversify your approach to that business.  Don’t have one band, have three.  Don’t just play music, record it, produce it, retail it.  Design, build, and repair instruments.  Give lessons, run a music website, better yet:  run three or a dozen.

As for myself, well, I’m just getting started with this process.  Yes, I’m still pretty much a “wage slave”, but I’m busy planting seeds and preparing for my own economic obsolescence.  True, the problem for most wage slaves is that there simply isn’t enough time in the day or week to squeeze in all of those intriguing sidelines.  But, there are ways to begin, even if it’s a slow start.  Some that I’m working on for our household include:

1.  Well, blogging, obviously.  After a year of poking at this, I’ve found that a bit more dedicated effort will begin to produce significant improvements.  Of course, we’re a long way yet from commercializing this effort, but I imagine that, one day, that will come.  In the mean time, it’s a great way to become technologically proficient with the internet and to continue learning new skills.

2.  Various product development ideas.  I’m learning the in’s and out’s of the import business with the help from one of my brothers.  We’re both actively looking for new opportunities.  I won’t bore you with (or yet reveal) the various products that are under consideration, but, I think that we all have ideas about what’s missing in the marketplace, don’t we?  Naturally, this can be as capital-intensive as you can imagine, but there are smaller-scale approaches to the problem, which we’ll address in more detail in the future.

3.  “Follow your bliss.”  Old advice that may well be some of the best ever when it comes to making a living.  They say you’ll never go to grave wishing you’d had more time at the office, but that depends on what you actually do there.  If you are passionate about music, that might be where you ought to be expending your energy.  That’s one of my greatest joys and it’s about time that I gave it more serious consideration.  But, the same advice would apply to whatever you’re interested in too:  gardening, coin collecting, small engines, classic cars, tree pruning, doll collecting, dog training, hunting, you name it.  The single best thing about this “new economy” is that there are a zillion avenues to making a serious enterprise of your happiest and most joyful pursuits.

At this point in my life, I can’t claim to have any great expertise with small business start-ups (although I’ve done one or two over the years).  But, from personal experience, I can positively affirm the value of diversifying your life, growing your interests, of continued learning, of simplifying your economic needs, of becoming more self-reliant, and of seeing “your job” as but one, possibly overly limiting, dimension in your life.  You make be fortunate to have a “dream job”, but – like the surgeon noted above – it may be worth having a Plan B.

Harry Tuttle 

By the way, check out our “Alternative Work” section here at ARL.


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