The Big To-Do List

Robert Heinlein, in his book Time Enough For Love, suggests a list of skills everyone should know,

“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.”

In the planning process for our first book The Urban Homestead we used a big piece of taped together paper to come up with our version of Heinlein’s skill set. Most of the subjects on that paper, everything from vegetable gardening to cargo bikes, ended up in the book or in our second book Making It. Now, we don’t expect everyone to master all the things in our books, but it doesn’t hurt to have a cursory knowledge of, say, greywater plumbing or compost pile construction, even if you live in a Manhattan apartment. You never know when you might have to roast a pig in a pit (that will be in our next book!).

One of my favorite list of things one should know is contained in the old Whole Earth Catalog. A few weeks ago I was leafing through my copy of the WEC and realized that I had done most of the things in it (not necessarily well, mind you). Well, everything except natural child birth, large puppets and mime.

I believe we’re entering the time of the self-taught generalist. But, looking at Heinlein’s list, I’ve got a lot of things I have yet to master. Which leads me to ask you, our dear readers, what topics and skills you’re interested in learning. What’s on that skill to-do list? Leave some comments!

Thanks to the Urban Survival Podcast for that Heinlein quote.

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  1. My skill learning to-do list includes: Learn old school timber frame building methods & hand tools, Learn to build personal sawmill space, Learn to build, setup & operate a small forge.

    I basically like all old trades, but being a hobby fabricator, learning how to build and use old hand tools is very interesting and brings a whole new appreciation for “old school” craftmanship.

  2. Ah well, I *have* done natural childbirth (homebirth) and it was pretty awesome. Now I don’t feel so lame compared to you guys. I’ve done only a fraction of what you do, but I truly am trying. On my to-do list for the fall is spoon carving. I want to make wooden spoons by hand.

  3. I’d love to learn more about raising rabbits for food. I’m currently living with my parents (who have a very firm “no cuddly mammals for dinner” policy) while I finish university, so it would be a year or two before I can feasibly use that skill. Still, no harm in being prepared. Slightly less interested in aquaculture, but it would be worth learning.

    To add to the list of things everyone should know how to do:
    — Knit or sew. It’s amazing how useful it can be to make your own garments and small household fabric items. Everything from the eternally-practical socks (SO WARM) to quirky homemade gifts, all wrapped up in a skein of yarn.
    — Type properly. (Nothing to do with urban homesteading, but there’s really no excuse to type less than 30 WPM if you have ten healthy fingers.)
    — Catch, kill and cook your own food of some sort. My favorite vacation is driving down to Charleston SC to catch blue crabs in the Atlantic. That was how I stumbled into this whole urban homesteading adventure, actually.

  4. I’d like to learn more about herbal medicine. The problem is a general lack of imperitive – we just don’t get sick very much. Mostly we use comfrey and calendula salve for all our scrapes, scratches and bruises. Otherwise there’s just not much driving us to grow our own medicine. Also, I find that much of the herbal teaching offered is a bit too woo-woo for me. I don’t think western science is the last word on anything, and I acknowledge that there’s a whole lot of complexity to properties of plants dependent on where it grows, when it’s harvested, etc. etc. etc. I just don’t think I’m going to get much out of meditating beside my plant mentor. I can’t let go of the need for empirical testing and reproducible results. Which puts me in a tough place with herbalism. Western science mostly dismisses it because it’s not easily reducible to discrete component parts. And the shamanic approach just doesn’t help me.

  5. I second on typing properly!
    Also i have totally done natural childbirth!
    Next on my list is actually a maintenance skill: i would like to do on a regular basis skills i have already (almost) mastered:
    – fermenting veggies
    – sprouting
    – making nut milk
    – being more focused!

  6. We run a non-profit that does lots of reskilling workshops, and we organize them into five categories:

    The Green World – growing and harvesting (gardens, wild edibles, hunting, raising bees, livestock, maple syrup, coppicing, etc.)

    The Real Home Ec – the first level of economy from the land (food preserving, making soap, tinctures, fiber, clothes, etc.)

    Tinkering – making do with machines (pedal power, fixing small engines, using and cleaning a rifle, chainsaw safety, etc.)

    Art – making great art

    Governance – getting along with other people (consensus, conflict resolution, public speaking, etc.)

    My must-know skill list includes: Learn tools. As many as possible, from chainsaws and drills to the loom or cream separator. Learn measuring, marking, layout and safety – design and build something complicated like a trailer, chicken house or solar hot water heater. Learn how to raise animals for food, and to hunt. Learn the uses of the plants where I live, be it food, medicine, lumber, fodder, nectary sources or anything else.

  7. Oh, my list is long and full. Lots of the items appear in The Urban Homestead (which I own), and many likely appear in Making It, but I’ll list some anyway, in no particular order:

    *Sourdough starter-making
    *Construction of basic structures/shelters (safe, stable ones!)
    *Chicken-raising (if Montreal ever allows it!)
    *Use of computer languages/website-making
    *Successful business-running (and I believe this and the above are important skills for my homestead)

    There are probably hundreds more. I am proud to say, though, that I, too, have done natural childbirth. I list it among my major personal accomplishments!

  8. I’ll second the herbal medicine and the rabbits-as-food. Done the natural childbirth (twice, it was that awesome).
    Would like to learn: cob or other earth building (chance is coming, at a site near me!!!); spinning (trying – see ); cooking with a rocket stove; sandal making; tai chi so I can join community groups at the park. I’d like to deepen my experience of cooking with solar cookers, lacto-fermenting veggies, canning tomatoes, drying food. Plus get more regular with meditation, and cooking nearly exclusively with local foods. I’d like to figure out what the So. Calif. equivalent to a root cellar might be. I haven’t seen The List to know if it is only tactile skills, but I need better conflict-resolution skills, and to get better at managing-from-the-heart rather than getting nutsy with the task at hand.
    (fun post!)

  9. Some immediate goals for this year:

    Learn more about beekeeping and establish if it will work on our property.

    Learn to harvest and dry our own herbs we are growing (we are very new gardners).

    I am growing Calendula this year (Kelly inspired me) so will try my own salves.

    Just got chickens 6 wks ago so am learning more about this.

    Need to get my compost going better.

    Get worm castings going for the yard.

    Install basic greywater projects and drip system
    (reading your book about that right now).

    Trying to work out a basic prepper list that isn’t
    overwhelming for food, med supplies etc.

    Debbie Gale

  10. *I need to learn more about dehydrating, like what needs to be blanched first. I have the 9-tray Excalibur, but need to use it more.(blanching retains nutrients)

    *Natural childbirth was easy…I say that after 30 hours of hard labor. I even went grocery shopping and just clutched the shopping cart with each contraction.I even did the breach thing with her.

    *Learn how to manage a setup with fish below and plants above..aquaculture?

    *Done–Sewing skills, equipment, materials.

    *Overcome fear and learn about bee hives

    *Learn to identify plants as food or medicine.

    *Learn to grow mushrooms. It scares me.

    *How to kill and dress a chicken (not my 3 eggy pets)

    *After making yogurt in my freecycle yogurt maker, I need to be brave and learn to make it without electricity.
    I have read all the ways, just need to try it.

    I am a voracious reader and have learned skills that I do not ever practice. I know this seems impossible. I once taught someone to cross stitch even though I had never done it myself. I diagnose garden problems for friends from knowledge I have retained from reading books.

    Although I do rely heavily on the computer and videos found on the internet, I like to have written material in hand, book or hardcopy, just because I like books and handling material of paper. After hearing people were saving links “just in case I need this when TSHTF,” I remarked that lack of internet access might make this knowledge inaccessible. People started printing and making their own files.

    Energy and pain right now main drawbacks to doing what I really want to learn to do. I was never that good with a handsaw. Now, I would just be dangerous to myself.

    *Maybe no one has thought of this “skill.” But, I need to learn how to do what I can do with more efficiency and different equipment because of physical problems that have developed. Hopefully, spine surgery and arthroscopic knee surgery will fix those problems. But, age brings its own set of needed skills.

    I am not that old (65), but I think people tend to forget that they will be able to do less as years pass for whatever reasons. Just because I and others remember I was a lithe, unstoppable dynamo in younger days, does not lessen the fact that being able to do less happens to many people as it did with me. Any skill is useless unless you can make adjustments to how you do it. Of course, we can still teach and pass on skills.

    *Thankfully, I am usually a great negotiator.

  11. -Make olive oil. We use it a lot now (thanks to you guys) and live in a Mediterranean climate, so I’d like to stop getting my olive oil from Italy (nothing against Italy, they’re just really far away)
    -Prune trees. I loved the logic behind fruit trees in The Urban Homestead (as opposed to the work of growing just annuals); now I need to get better at taking care of them.
    -Cook without electricity or propane. I don’t want to rely on having either, so I’d like to get good at making a solar cooker and cooking in a pit. It’s been SO thrilling to see how comfortable it is actually possible to be with very little.
    -Sew and knit. It would be especially nice to be able to make a knit piece from scratch (beginning with shearing an animal).
    -learn more about intelligently using water on my property -berms, swales, rainbarrels, etc
    -learn sodium-free alternatives to DIY housekeeping/soap/etc for gray water
    -learn basic bike maintenance. I’ve switched from a car to a bike and I love it, but it’s embarrassing that I don’t even know how to change a tire. I was ridiculously pleased with myself when the chain popped off and I actually got it back on. And I have two army surplus bags that I got for $15 each that would make GREAT panniers but I have NO IDEA how to convert them to attach them to the bike.
    -I’d like to be ‘handier.’ I rely on my husband to do mechanical/spatial things, and since he’s in the military and often coming and going, having things grind to a halt and wait adds to feeling helpless. So I’d like to have more redundancy in our skill sets, to be able to at least kind of do the things he can do, enough to get by.

  12. Over the past four years or so we’ve started to become generalists, doing more and more for ourselves, from home heating, food growing and preserving, commuting, repairs, entertainment, etc. It was initially sort of fear driven – the future looked so uncertain. We’ve had the usual benefits, improved finances, better food. What we didn’t expect was that as we became more capable and knowledgeable, our fear of the future started to recede. I think we have been typecast by friends and family as “doomy”, but when we talk with people we are among the most optimistic, least fearful folks that we know. No one knows what the future holds, but we do know that however things unfold, being smart and adaptable and open to possibility can’t be a bad thing. It’s also a ton of fun.

    Next up: Sewing, knitting, more home building, learning Spanish, improving fitness through hiking, yoga, biking.

  13. Well, here’s some of my list:
    Make yogurt(will use your instructions)
    Improve my drop-spindling
    Learn woodlot management
    Really master the use of my Sun Oven
    Learn food dehydrating
    Improve my vegetable gardening skills
    Learn top bar beekeeping
    Plant and manage a small homestead orchard
    Learn to use a wood stove for heating and cooking
    Learn to use a cob oven for baking

    Gee, that’s not too much, is it? 🙂

  14. I think one essential skill that many people miss is how to properly raise and train a puppy. So many dogs are kept by inadequate owners, it is saddening.

  15. I am surprising myself at how many of those things I do already! We are getting bees in the Spring.
    However the next ones on my list are:
    herbal medicine/remedies
    raising fish for food

  16. Before I read the other posts, because I’m sure Ill add to the list if I do. I am a woman who is good at gardening, chickens, home surgery,plumbing, sewing,weaving, cooking in any situation, and adequate at power tools and carpentry. I believe I need to know about basic engineering, motors, fixing cars, and engines in general. Solar panels(a to b), welding,hydraulic systems (thinking of self opening vents for green houses here). I could build a windmill or watermill or generator but how do I transfer that to actually collecting power. How do I ferment corn into vodka. I know they used to use every part of the pig, but how do you get from live animal to hog’s head cheese? Willow bark makes aspirin but do you have to do anything to it?

    I know I should read your first books to see just whats in there but I haven’t gotten around to saving for them. I wish y’all the best of luck, y’all are pioneers!

  17. Let’s see:

    build and use a solar cooker

    build and use an outdoor oven (can’t bake a proper pizza in the summer in a house with no air conditioning)

    how to tie more useful knots other than a square knot

    how to set animal traps (instead of hunting for those of us that can’t- plus it might be good to know how)

    honestly? this is kind of a dumb one- I want to learn how to fish. how to wade out into a stream and fish. how to know if there are even fish in the stream before I get my shoes wet.

    how to turn the leaves from Camilla sinensis into black tea. I have the plants but no idea when to harvest leaves and turn them into black tea.

    how to make olive oil- no! how to grow and cure olives, and press olive oil using stuff we can get our hands on. Like a car jack.

    how to grow, cook and prepare snails for human consumption.

    how to use a bow and arrow.

    you know what’s kind of scary? we don’t even know what all the skills are that have been lost so that we can ask how to learn them!

  18. Well, I’ve done the yogurt, love sewing, can crochet and have started to learn to knit. I have the world’s smallest herb garden next to me on my window sill (oh Basil, I love you so.) There are some things that are on my list though.

    Spinning: I still can’t seem to get it right. I obviously should have hung out with my friend who introduced me to it more >.< Get better with sour dough: Just moved from VA to WI a few months ago and have only just now gotten to getting a new culture started. Make more soda: Seriously, home made gingerale rocks and is so good for the stomach Get my Dog and Cat because I miss them so :< There are more things on there, I’m sure, but for now I think that I’ll take it a bit at a time.

  19. @Joss: I get what you’re saying about being handier. With Erik around, I don’t have any big incentive to wield the power tools and build stuff. If he gets hit by a bus, I’m not going to look so self-reliant anymore!

    @Jordan: I completely agree. A well-trained dog is a wonderful thing, an asset to the family, a friend for life–but I see so many horribly behaved dogs. It’s really a shame, because training increases the bond between you and your dog, makes the dog happier and less prone to destructive behavior. And the human learns a lot from training–more about themselves than then dog, I think! It’s an art and a skill and I’d definitely put it on this list. If not dog training, the horse handling or something similar.

    @All You Home-Birthers: I kneel in awe.

    I thought I’d toss in my own list. It tends to change, but right now these are on my hit list:

    -Herbalism/natural healing. I’m doing a lot now but I want to do more, something more structured.

    –Hardcore first aid (like wilderness medicine) Again I’ve had some of this, but I want more.

    -I really want to learn how to make net bags–netting in general

    –Related to netting: knots. I love knots, but if you don’t tie them every day, you forget them. I’ve forgotten what I learned in my last flush of knot euphoria. I need to recreate what I’ve forgotten, and learn more.

    –I want to make my own shoes!

    –Use a drop spindle.

    –Knit better. I never got past scarves–knitting in the round boggled my simple brain.

    –I want to know how to use a knife better. On a fantasy aside, it would be fun to know how to throw a knife.

    –It’s not practical, as I have no livestock, or chance of it unless we move somewhere rural–but I’d really love to know how to milk a goat or cow. And if I were milking, I’d want to know immediately how to make that milk into cheese. We’ve done a little casual cheese making around here, but lost heart because of the quality of commercial milk and the general aura of sadness around it. I don’t want sad cheese.

    –Spanish. I took it throughout jr. high and high school but of course I can’t speak it.

  20. I just came back to this post to see the other lists, and I’m cutting and pasting some of these because they’re so good! So many things I hadn’t even thought of!

    And Mrs. Homegrown, I, too, really want to make my own shoes.

  21. In no particular order, I want to:

    felt my own slippers

    get better at pruning my fruit trees

    learn to crochet

    improve my sewing

    get better/faster with a drop spindle

    learn how to spin with a wheel

    learn how to confidently identify more than 2 edible mushrooms

    throw pots on a wheel- specifically make my own rhubarb and seakale forcers

    whittling and spoon carving

    cheese making: better mozzarella (mine tastes good but has the texture of halloumi presently!) and learn hard cheese

    finally crack sourdough bread making

    learn sheep or goat husbandry (and get goats or sheep)

    build a rocket stove

    build and use a solar cooker

    improve my typing and my French and German

    learn the piano

    learn to do everything I currently do better!

    A lady a few villages over makes handmade shoes; we’ve just ordered a pair of boots for me and a pair of shoes for DD2. I’m happy with that at the moment!

  22. I love this! What an inspiring set of comments. I’m a blacksmith, artist and avid urban farmer — and that’s opened the doors to a huge array of things I’d like to learn. My list, in no particular order:

    woodworking and carpentry

    small engine repair

    growing quinoa and oatmeal on an intensive urban scale (urban farming in general)

    implementing solar and greywater


    anything under the heading of “putting up”

    bee keeping

    soil science

    planting and maintaining an orchard

    building a rocket stove, outdoor oven, solar oven

    baking beyond popovers, cornbread and pies

    roasting and storing coffee

    intensive vermiculture (that course sounds incredible)

    intensive urban berms and swales for rainwater harvesting

    cob, strawbale, etc

    printmaking, silversmithing

    really successful seed-starting in a drought

  23. Glad to see I wasn’t the only one who thought about dog training! I wrote “Train a dog without use of violence, intimidation or dominance theory” on my original comment, then deleted it. Reluctantly. I’m a dog trainer and I currently work at a dog daycare — you’d be *astounded* by some people’s relationships with their dogs.

    Just this afternoon, I stopped by Petco on the way home. I had my deaf dog Haven with me. We were walking around the store and I ended up talking with this woman while Haven very politely played with her little-tiny dog. Conversation turned to training (as my conversations often do). I showed her a few of Haven’s more interesting sign language tricks (jumping into my arms, knowing clockwise and counter-clockwise, “saying her prayers,” etc).

    The lady was impressed and said, “My ___ is almost two years old. She knows how to sit, and that’s about it. I think she’s too stubborn to learn.”

    I said “Do you have ten minutes?”

    “Sure! … Why?”

    “I’m going to teach your dog a trick. What doesn’t she know?”

    “She only knows sit.”

    “In ten minutes, I’m going to teach her how to shake.”

    Ten minutes later, she was talking to the Petco trainer about possibly signing up for a training class. I love showing people how clever dogs can be if you give them half a chance. Coda, my other dog, can read a few words. We have signs that say “Sit” and “down” — he can differentiate between them and obeys them. Both of my dogs speak our own system of hand-signs. It just takes effort, time and enough empathy to think about how your dog is interpreting everything you do.

  24. Ever-improving listening skills
    Cultivating an understanding heart
    Greywater conversions
    More Bike Skills, including bike repair
    About Pigmy Goats and the people who love them
    More natural healing
    Supporting young people well

  25. Two things. My list looks alot like the above but I did it all before I was 18. I was raised by wolves, erm, cough cough, hippies so built my own house, helped with everything for my parents building which is enough to teach anyone. So if you have children, don’t treat them like they can’t do, just go slow and give them the safety warnings as they don’t have the muscle strength you do. Teach them to think through the physics of a project and use supports and TOOLS to get them there.

    Also, in the community section I’d recommend a book “we the people” It’ll change your group decisionmaking process, and for the good.

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