How to Prepare for Unknown Unknowns

How to Prepare for Unknown Unknowns

@ATLeah suggested, "If you're inclined, a longer thread on how you are positioning yourself for job security and self-sufficiency (in an RV!) would be super interesting to read," so let's talk about that today.

It's a scary time to be living in America.

I'm 35 right now, and 2020 is--without a doubt--the most uncertain and unstable year I've experienced in my three decades of life when I consider all of the factors in play on both the national and international stage.

I don't want to stress anyone out, but you probably know this because you're experiencing it yourself unless you're living DEEP under a rock. Just a few things making me uneasy:

1. Our political landscape has NEVER felt more polarized and intense to me than it does right now. "Reaching across the aisle" isn't a phrase I hear anymore. Rampant tribalism and vicious mocking of the outgroup is the norm. The joking/not-joking chatter about secession, Democracy breakdowns, and State/Federal conflict is at an all-time high (within my lifetime).

2. COVID isn't going away any time soon, may have long term health impacts for those afflicted, and is making everyone anxious while denying us the comfort of one another's company, which is historically something that helps humans get through hard times.

3. While the government has never been a model of efficiency, it's really bad right now. Checks and balances are wildly out of whack. The USPS is breaking down in spite of "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." The Federal and local responses to COVID-19 have been (and continue to be) a muddled, patchwork mess with no consistency and insufficient enforcement. The one "relief" bill passed around COVID was the biggest "fuck-you" to working class people I've ever seen.

4. Technology continues to accelerate in ways that are dizzying even for highly intelligent technical people to keep up with. AI/ML is going to replace entire sectors of lower and middle class jobs within two decades (and probably sooner) in spite of talking points that it won't.

5. When people feel that systems are too complex or too big to make good decisions around, they retreat to the "safe" recommendations of "experts" and rely on guidelines or tools for decision making to hedge personal risk... But there are no experts in uncharted territory. There are lots of stupid/arbitrary decisions being made as a result that aren't optimal for the humans affected by them and the scale of the systems in play offer those humans little recourse when the system fails them.

6. As others have noted, our just-in-time network of supply chains are intensely fragile to systemic shocks, dependent on foreign manufacturing, and we're already seeing impacts of that at retail stores despite their efforts to paper over.

7. We tie health care to employment in America and so the loss of jobs caused by several of these factors not only denies people income, but also endangers their health and denies them access to controlled medications they need. This will make people increasingly desperate if jobs continue to erode.

8. Job loss from any of these factors (or any other reason) can be crippling for individuals and people have a harder time finding work again when they've been unemployed for a while. Finding a new job is also made harder by all of these factors due to the hardship and uncertainty of the times. This leads to depression, despair, hopelessness, and anxiety.

9. Even aside from the prior factors, social cohesion, trust, and engagement has been eroding for decades. People in the 20-40 age range display FAR less civic engagement or investment in their communities than people in the 40-90 age range did. Communities are increasingly fragmented, online, distributed, pseudonymous, and ephemeral. Loose friend networks maintained over the internet are what we have instead of community centers or churches now.

10. Saber rattling with foreign powers has been heating up. American hegemony is weaker than it's been in prior decades. The possible (likely) collapse of the Three Gorges Dam would have massive impacts on global supply chains (esp. food and medicine). We also apparently all just forgot about the concentration camps and organ harvesting stuff over in that direction.

And I'm sure there are lots of other terrible things going on I'm not even thinking about. This is just the stuff that's top of mind for me.

The point I'm making is that we're living in VERY uncertain times. With all of these factors in play, it's very very hard to know what the future might hold or make good investments in your future prosperity with any level of confidence that you're doing the right thing.

It's not surprising that people are increasingly turning to self-sufficiency, preparation, and ways of living that are less dependent on the fragile, chaotic systems they see around them for survival in this unpredictable and novel set of environmental conditions.

I want to talk a little bit about some of the ways I'm preparing myself for self-sufficiency and make some recommendations for navigating uncertain environments when the future is fuzzy like this, in the hope that it might give you some ideas for crafting a strategy that's best for you and your family, too.

I'm a huge fan of agility when it comes to uncertainty. The nature of unknown unknowns are such that you can't directly prepare for them, but what you CAN do is make yourself as adaptable and flexible as possible to react to fluid circumstances in real time.

Buying a farm in the middle of nowhere and setting up to grow your own food, dig a well, install a septic tank, and loading up on guns and ammo to defend your land is the classic prepper strategy. It's not bad. But it still leaves one less flexible than I'd personally like, is impractical for many people financially, and over-invests in a strategy that fails if you're forced off your land for some reason (disaster, war, sudden income shocks, whatever). It might also be overkill if things turn out to be not so bad, which they might.

What are some things you can do if this isn't an option or isn't appealing for you? How can you hedge on financial stability and job security if you're not ready to renounce society and go live off-grid?

Here are a few suggestions. I'm breaking these into two categories of "Hedging Economic Uncertainty" and "Worst Case Survival Prep."

Let's start with some tips for "Hedging Economic Uncertainty." These are things you can do to make yourself as nimble as possible in uncertain circumstances where things haven't totally broken down.

1. Learn to Live as Cheaply as You Can

This one is a no-brainer. It's a stoic approach, but if you can get used to living on a lower income than you are now, you're more resistant to shocks to your income and your savings carry your further in the event of disaster. You can get really creative with this.

This is one of the reasons I bought (and live) in an RV. I reduced my total housing expenses by about $1800/month with a $20k outlay on a used RV in great condition (roughly the cost of a cheap new car). You can also do this with a tiny home or similar. If I live in it for one year, the rig paid for itself and I still own it.

My total living expenses (including utilities, insurance, medical, food, and housing) are about $1600 a month for an EXPENSIVE month for one person. I can get by on about $600-$800 with care and planning. This is less than the cost of just what my RENT used to be, and I own my RV. This gives me a ton of flexibility in my work situation.

2. Build Skills that Let You Work Remotely

Having skills that allow you to do remote work dramatically expand your employment options and your options for cheaper living situations. While AI is coming for knowledge work eventually, AI is probably coming for everything.

Writing, Coding, Sales, Marketing, and Communication in general are all safe-ish bets that are multi-purpose and applicable to a wide variety of fields and use cases that you can frame in ways to apply for a wide variety of possible jobs. COVID actually helps with this a little as our economy shifts to being more comfortable with remote work for a lot of jobs that don't have to be in physical offices.

3. Invest in Meta-Learning Skills

In You Can Teach Yourself Anything ( ) I talk about the importance and value of "accelerator skills," which are skills that let you learn new things quickly. The pace of tech has created an environment in which lots of knowledge becomes outdated rapidly. The faster you can learn to do new things and the more confidence you have in your ability to learn new things, the less anxious you'll feel about a constantly shifting environment.

4. Pay Attention to Trends

If you can do it without too much anxiety around The Discourse, it's extremely valuable to pay attention to new developments in various fields and see what people deeply enmeshed in those fields are thinking and talking about.

It's good to sample from people in a variety of disciplines and positions. Twitter is fantastic for this. The more you do this in conjunction with accelerator skills, the better positioned you are to spot new opportunities to create value and capitalize on them.

5. Build Revenue Streams Independent of Employment

This is hard but learning to run a small business is worth its weight in gold. Even getting practice doing something as simple as making arts and crafts and selling them on Etsy can provide additional income and blow up in surprising ways. I like to make lots of small, cheap bets and experiment to see what gains traction.

While it wasn't the best use of my time personally, I realized last year that you could buy secondhand art books and cheap frames, cut the pictures out, frame them, and sell them to people locally for roughly 100x the return on investment pretty easily.

Write a book. Coach people. Build handmade chairs. There are so many options and it puts you in a good mindset to look for others. The less reliant you are on a third party's income to survive, the less power they have over you and the better protected you are from losing your job for any reason.

Think of these experiments as planting small seeds all over the place and seeing what grows. Foster anything that does and you might be surprised by where it takes you.

6. Diversify Your Savings

This is hard and it presumes you have substantial enough savings to diversify them, but if you do, you need to be hedging risk around this. Cash is susceptible to inflation (and hyper-inflation). If you have excess capital, keep a reasonable cash cushion liquid for emergencies and then spread the rest around not only into financial instruments but into property that has personal utility.

Don't overextend and put all your savings into any one thing if you can avoid it (including a home) because it becomes a devastating risk vector or a weight around your neck if you need to move fast for whatever reason.

I'll toss out the obvious stocks/CDs/bitcoin/actual cash spread but also consider things like a backup generator, an RV, solar capabilities, training courses for key skills, and tools you may find useful at some future point. While I like to live light, some stuff like a way to purify water or a portable suitcase solar kit is never a bad idea to keep handy and worth dragging around with you.

7. Cultivate Mental Tools for Coping with Uncertainty

Uncertainty is stressful. Threats are stressful. Living in 2020 is stressful. If you haven't already started, you need to build practices that work for you to keep yourself high-functioning even in stressful and high-anxiety situations.

Being able to move quickly and respond to emergent conditions requires that you don't freeze up or lose yourself in a hopeless depression. Build mental resiliency now so you have it when you need it.

This will look different for everyone: Maybe it's daily meditation or prayer. Maybe it's practicing deep breathing and proper posture. Maybe it's taking planned breaks from social media and the news. Maybe it's making a habit of gratitude and listing the things you're grateful for. Find what calms you down and practice it.

When I was younger, I didn't appreciate the spiritual function of saying grace before sitting down to eat, but it's really about taking amount to reflect on gratitude that you have food. Realigning yourself with what's really important in your life will help your shrug off things that aren't as important and might otherwise be stressful.

8. Make Lots of Friends

You need other people no matter how prepared and flexible you are. Investing in friendship has an ASTOUNDINGLY good cost:benefit ratio.

Friends can help you when you need it, cover your knowledge or skill gaps, teach you things, open opportunities for you, connect you to other important people or information, and help you see things in new ways that you wouldn't have considered on your own. On top of all this, community is a basic human need and both you and your friends benefit in a myriad of ways from strong, mutually affirming relationships.

If you suddenly find yourself in a career that's been automated away over five years, having friends in other fields dramatically accelerates your ability to hop into something different. If you can't get access to a doctor, knowing someone who's a trained nurse is huge. If your savings suddenly collapses and your house is no longer safe, knowing that you can call people who would let you crash on their couch or in their spare room for a while prevents you from being homeless.

Knowing who your friends are and making more of them might be the best possible tip for managing uncertainty that I have to offer you. If your life doesn't afford you the level of flexibility you'd like in any other area, you can still do this.

If you struggle to make friends, think deeply about why this might be and practice improving your social skills. Don't give up. Don't assume you're unlovable (you're not). The returns are absolutely worth the work and you'll be happier for it in the long run.

Now let's talk about "Worst Case Survival Prep." I've done less work here because I'm (perhaps foolishly) hoping things don't get this bad, but this stuff is still all useful as well. There are other prepper people with better advice here than me, but here are some basic guidelines anyway.

This stuff is most useful if our social environment or country governance REALLY breaks down, if war breaks out, if another pandemic hits, if a natural disaster devastates your community, etc etc. All of the above tips still apply too, but these are extra ways to hedge catastrophic risk.

1. Build Skills that Make You More Self-Reliant

The less you have to depend on other people for simple things, the more resilient you are to losing access to those things. It's not hard to learn to do simple home maintenance stuff and even electrical/plumbing tasks are much more approachable with YouTube at your disposal. Six months ago I'd never touched anything involving electricity. Now I at least know enough to do minor repairs and troubleshoot basic electrical systems safely.

Anyone can take a basic first aid class in your local area to understand how to treat and deal with common emergency scenarios. You have WebMD at your fingertips too. Outside of major surgery, life-threatening illnesses, prescription medications, and antibiotics, you don't need a doctor or nurse to deal with most of the health things you're likely to run into with a little training. A little training on common plants and their uses doesn't hurt either.

Knowing how to hunt or grow your own food is also useful even if you never actually need to use those skills. You might balk at the idea of shooting and cleaning a rabbit, but you might be glad to know how if you ever need to. I haven't tackled this yet, but this leads me to my next point...

2. Prepare Ways to Learn Things Later That You Don't Know Now

If the internet or our utilities got turned off tomorrow, most of us would be screwed. I recommend investing in a few multi-purpose technical manuals or survival books that explain how to do some of the basic stuff described above and keeping a hard copy around that you can easily access if you don't have electricity.

If you do have access to electricity (because you wisely bought a solar kit or generator), you can also create local copies of digital archives of information that are far more useful than any single book would be. There are tools to download and make copies of YouTube videos you can store on an external drive if you'd ever need them.

I keep a variety of YouTube How-Tos on RV repair and maintenance on my external hard drive (and my backup) and it's on my backlog to do more of this. You never know when your internet access might fizzle.

3. Buy a Gun (and Learn to Clean and Use it Safely)

I come from a rural family of hunters so I'm biased here, but regardless of how you feel about firearms it's not ever a bad idea to have one and to know how to use it. You can keep it in a locked safe, get trained on it, and hope you never have to touch it, but if you ever need it you'll be glad you have it. I have a 9mm I keep in a small gun safe, and I recently added a scoped hunting rifle as a backup. I hope never to have to use either one for either self-defense OR hunting.

Definitely take hunter's safety or a gun safety class if you're going to have one. It's been 20 years since I took something formal like that but I have no regrets about acquiring that knowledge. I want to especially emphasize this for women! My mom and my ex-gf are two of the most gun-savvy and well trained people I know when it comes to firearms. It's a great confidence boost to have this skill.

4. Backup Provisions are Good, But Tools for Provisions are Better

While it's good to have a stock of backup provisions for yourself and your family, you'll never be able to store as many canned goods or jugs of spare water as you might like. Having the tools to get more food from nature (and purify water sources) help whatever you have go much, much further.

You don't have to go all-in crazy prepper lifestyle to own a set of fishing tackle, a hunting rifle, a water purification set, a small seed bank, and a set of tools for canning/preserving food. These are all minimal investments you can make for less than $2000 all-in that leaves you in a much better position if things ever got really bad. Knowing how to use these tools is as important as having them.

In closing...

You can't ever be totally prepared for unknown unknowns or environments of uncertainty. It's just the nature of the game. But if you keep yourself curious, adaptable, informed, well-prepared to provide for your material needs, and connected to people who care about you, odds are good that you'll be fine regardless of what happens.

The future is a strange country. Plan for the worst, hope for the best.