Like most young(ish) men of my age there comes a point, usually every three months, where I have an uncontrollable urge for a haircut. One day everything could be fine, I am unaware of even the existence of follicles of dead protein spurting from my scalp, which is the way I like it. The next day however, it all suddenly becomes an awkward burden. In the summer months, it could make me too hot, and in the barren winter months it could fit uncomfortably inside a hat. While other more image-conscious ‘men’ may get their hair cut on a regular basis, often consulting style magazines and current fashions, the sole reason I get mine cut is if it makes me uncomfortable for any lengthy period of time. Interlinked with this is the fact that I, and I don’t think I’m alone in this, do not like the physical act of getting my hair cut by a hairdresser. Waiting in line , small talk, handing over money. None of this is in my list of things I like doing. It is even worse living abroad, as not only does the small talk have to be in a different language, but also do the intricacies of your desired hairstyle. I don’t even know how to explain how I want my haircut in English, yet I have gone through the experience in the Netherlands, Italy, Indonesia, Taiwan and most recently Austria. The results have been varied, but universally unsatisfactory.
As anyone who has met me in the past eight years knows, I generally sport a full, unkempt beard, which changes length based on the time since I had last clipped it with whichever cheap appliance I had at the time for just that purpose. I turned 30 recently and decided rashly that I was too old to be sporting inconsistent facial hair, and purchased a fancy €60 Philips personal grooming clippers which reportedly could give a man the most perfect dreitagebart that is technologically possible. It does, and it has, and ever since then my facial hair is exactly the way it should be, and with minimal effort, which is the most important thing for me. However, this blessed Philips appliance was not merely a beard trimmer, it was a personal grooming clippers. According to the literature enclosed within (and indeed engraved upon) its packaging, it also had the power to deliver every haircut known to man. Ever since I bought it and read those words, they have been etched at the back of my mind, whispering to me every time I thought of getting a haircut. After all, why should I pay money, time and social awkwardness for a service that I despise and dread? So on Tuesday night I finally gave in to these urges and cut my own hair.
According to Plato, the foundation of human society is the division (or specialisation) of labour. No one is good at everything, therefore in order to thrive, humanity must congregate and supply their skills to each other in exchange for the skills of others. The farmer farms, the baker bakes, the tailor tails, and suddenly you have a few people who depend on each other. This dependence requires some sort of institution to oversee its smooth running. This is the birth of the State and the Rule of Law. This is the reason why we do certain things ourselves, and delegate other more specialised tasks to people with specific skills and knowledge. As societies have grown larger and more complex, this division of labour has also become much more specialised. Think of the banking industry for example, which from its foundations in Renaissance Venice as one single banker with one single specialisation now boasts hundreds of possible specialisations and career paths. Since Plato, one of the most influential theorists on the specialisation of labour was David Ricardo, an 18th Century economist who basically argued that individual countries should stop trying to produce all goods by themselves, and instead focus on what they are good at, and import the rest with profits from their specialised produce. England is wasting its time making wine, and should focus on making cloth. Portugal should burn all its textile factories and focus on making that wine. England and Portugal will sort out the trading of cloth and wine later, and agree on a trade exchange that suits them both. In the same way, a weak man with a head for math should probably not become a labourer on a building site, it is a waste of everyone’s time. A woman who can pick up languages easily should be fast-tracked into either international espionage or diplomatic service. Teachers in school ask us what we want to be when we grow up partly in order to plant this seed of specialisation into our heads, because there is a high correlation between what we like and what we are very good at doing. If you like doing something, it is more than likely because you find it is easier to do than most people, and also since you like it you will gladly spend more time practicing and perfecting it. This will lead to benefits for both you and society in the future, as you will pursue a career you are somewhat interested in and/or good at, and hopefully you will not waste anyone else’s time in the labour market if they hire you for a job for which you are neither interested in nor good at. In this sense, there is no real argument against specialisation.
I disregarded all of this on Tuesday night when I came to the conclusion that me extracting the most value possible from my €60 investment in Philips personal grooming clippers was far smarter than over two thousand years of human intellectual and societal development. I watched a YouTube video (as is the wont of my generation when it comes to doing anything new) of an image consultant doing it by himself in ten minutes, and then I took out the clippers. I did the back and the sides like he said, but without being able to see the end result of either. When it came to the top, the guy in the video just took out a scissors and cut incisively. This part I couldn’t do, and herein lies the rub. What I wanted was shortish back and sides, but still with a little mop of hair at the top. For this, even the Philips grooming clippers could not be used, and skilled hands with scissors were necessary. I convinced myself that it looked alright at the top, and decided I would sleep on it.
When I woke up the next day, I remembered that I had half-cut my hair. Looking at it in the daylight, there was only one conclusion: the top had to go, all of it. I looked at it in the mirror for a while, psyching myself up, and then I remembered that I might well be doing this myself for the rest of my life. After all, my loving girlfriend has been persistently, consistently and gleefully informing me for three years that the bald spot on the crown of my head was approaching the size of Texas. According to her, I would be absolutely bald by the time I was 35. This was the future, it was time to embrace it. So I cut it at the top, at the lowest level possible of course. After all, these clippers could do any hairstyle known to man. I am not a skinhead, just much less hirsute. I didn’t like it of course, but that is the same if I go to a hairdresser. The main difference was I was paranoid about it in public, like how it looked at the back, if it was symmetrical, would people be staring at it. Of course, now it is comfortable and I am used to it so I do not care. But still, ever since I first put the clippers to my head, I am reminded of the division of labour. We are not all good at the same things. And just because someone does something in a YouTube video does not mean you can do it yourself. If you take any lesson from this post, let it be that.