"So what is your degree in?"

Taking a diversion from running today and visiting on the work side of my life. For those who don't know, I'm a home inspector, the guy who squirms his way through a crawlspace and clambers through attics to get you good information on that dream home you're eyeing.

It's a very cool job. I get to see how other people live, how they design, what they consider priorities, all by looking at their houses. Now, I do have a few rules. When I'm in the closets, for example, I pay attention to the closet, not to the belongings. Ditto for the kitchen drawers and under the sinks. Never, ever, do I violate a person's privacy by intruding into dressers and the like. (And yes, I have heard stories of tradespeople doing exactly that. They should be banned from the trade/business if caught.)

I also don't judge people on the basis of their homes. I've had more that a few women - it's always the women - who apologized the condition of the home, despite the fact that it doesn't look bad to me. My standard response is that anyone with kids and dogs gets special dispensation. For homes that don't have the kids or pets, I point out that I have done frat houses and sororities - they're golden.

Yesterday, my afternoon inspection was twenty miles outside of Lewiston and into the hills above the Clearwater River. The home sat on 78 acres with riveting views from its perch above the canyons. The buyer and seller were both there, which is a bit unusual, but this was a For Sale By Owner transaction. FSBO's are almost always more relaxed than a traditional sale for both parties, and definitely for the inspector. Normally, I am bound by rule not to divulge my findings to the other party; with FSBO's, they both accompany me and we chat about the various issues as we discover them.

The buyers were from Moscow, home of the University of Idaho. As happens often, my clients were brighter than I am. That's the drawback to spending a lot of time with people with PHD's. The advantage is that I learn something new nearly every time I'm with people such as these.

And, as happens often, I got the question: so what's your degree in?

I get the question because the skill set for a home inspector, much less one that also coaches and writes, is a diversified set. Recognizing zebra stripes on the wall as indicative of minimal insulation, or being able to describe the function of an air conditioner (not that I could repair one - that requires manual dexterity, too), or understanding and communicating the potential for a carpenter ant intrusion takes broad knowledge across multiple disciplines. The breadth of knowledge greatly exceeds the depth of same. Home inspectors are the ultimate generalists. The best of us are able to synthesize two or three relevant observations do determine system failures that are not readily obvious. 

To answer my client's question, I told him quite simply, "I don't have a degree." I've told the kids in the AVID program at Clarkston High the same thing.

Still, I've always been an active learner and, as Louis L'Amour pointed out in his book, The Education of a Wandering Man, a person can become very educated without stepping foot in the halls of academia. As he also pointed out, that particular route of self-directed learning should be undertaken only by those with the self-discipline to stay the course.

In the course of my life, I've had the opportunity to work in many different fields, from shovelling manure for a buck an hour, to flipping burgers, to driving truck, to sales, to code inspection, and to home inspection, with professional writing as the next stop. Each taught me new skills. (Even shovelling manure - I learned to grow tomatoes and onions from that old couple, and got my first marketing lesson at their little roadside knick-knack shop.)

I have always read, too. I average more than fifty books a year and would read more if I ditched the computer and political blogs. For about a two decade stretch, I read non-fiction ranging from biographies of civil war generals and the Tudors, to quantum field theory (as much as I could handle with my limited math - I'm good into calculus, but some of that stuff is deep) and Gell-Mann's the Quark and the Jaguar. I'd binge read fiction when I needed a mental vacation, sci-fi before it went stupid, thrillers, mysteries, the occasional 'good' book that the college professor would proclaim as 'literature' which I always thought was an arbitrary standard.

I will be the first to admit that I have led a fortunate life. I was born in a country where a person is allowed to better themselves. That is not true of most of the world, and while people decry the lack of opportunity in America, it's still here, though there's a catch: you have to be willing to work and to learn.

More importantly, you have to believe. Believe that opportunity still exists, though the larger society will claim the American Dream is dead. It isn't, not as long as life stories like Ursula Burns or Ben Carson exist. The distance that they travelled is far greater and far rockier than the path the rest of us complain about. See the opportunities, not for taking advantage of people, but of learning and serving because that's the home of opportunity. My vocations and avocations a

Believe in the people around you. We're all part of a tribe, even a loner like me. Find your tribes - you probably belong to more than one - and find ways to contribute.  I had a person who once told me that I trusted everyone (true, at least at first) and that I never got burned by it in a major way (also true.) His complaint was that he'd keep score with people and always ended up getting screwed. It wasn't fair that I did the opposite, with the opposite results. I don't think he saw the larger picture. Believe in people, meet every stranger as a friend. The people around you will surprise you with how much they actually care and how much they will help.

Finally, the hardest step. Believe in yourself, both as you are now and how you want to be. I can't offer many guidelines on this one as I don't know them. There may not be a pat answer. In my life, I try to surround myself with good people, positive of mind, that will ask of me my best. I always seek new experiences and chances to expand my knowledge, whether it's via a good book or a chance conversation.

And, I think indirectly, my client gave me a better answer to the question of my degree during our conversation yesterday.

My degree is in the Practical Applications of the American Dream.

Run gently this weekend, friends, and find a good book or buddy to spend some time with, too.