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Zen and the Art of Accord Maintenance

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.

-Robert A. Heinlein


My uncle, (among the smartest and most successful people I know), says that specialization above all else is what will create success in a career.  He is an attorney who has written textbooks on the law and has focused in his practice on a few very obscure things.

On the other hand, people like Jacob from Early Retirement Extreme believe that vast and wide experience is critical to a successful life.  He does not use this term (to my knowledge) but apparently there is a literary archetype known as “The Competent (W0)Man,” which epitomizes this sentiment.  Jacob does use the Heinlein quote above, which I have known and loved for many years.

So who is right?

I think they’re both right.

Success in a career is contingent upon specialized knowledge, for several reasons.  First, as competitive as the job market has become, there are a zillion people who say they are well rounded generalists, but few actually are.  Someone with general skills AND specialized ability will win every time.  More importantly, the legal and regulatory environment has become so complicated (computer word processing and accumulating laws without a “clearing of the registers) that any subject has a large number of sub areas to master, and no one person can claim to be a complete expert on something as broad as “Mergers and  Acquisitions.”

So, as a careerist or academic, it’s important to develop specialization, but as someone looking for independence some day, it’s important to gain as many broad skills as possible.  These days I straddle the line.  I have developed significant expertise in a few career-related areas, but I work hard to become a “Competent Man” on the side.

All of this is a long way of saying that I replaced the starter on my car today.

I’m fortunate to have a largely depreciated, optional car.  

But sometimes, it still needs fixin’.  For the last month or so, I was having hard starting problems.  Usually I would get a click and no cranking whatsoever when I turned the key.  I found that cycling the key all the way off and back on again, several times, would ultimately lead to successful cranking.  I replaced the battery, and the problem persisted, so I figured it was probably the starter.  It was as though the current flowing through it warmed it enough to crank, but it was likely to go soon.

If the condition were static, I would have kept going like that indefinitely, but I started getting the sense that the symptoms were worsening.  Our driveway has a large slope down to get out, so since I have a manual, I could have hill started indefinitely.  The problem is that where I park for work is relatively flat, so I ran the risk of getting stranded away from the house, which was more of a problem.

So, for a number of reasons, I decided to replace the starter myself:

  • It would be ok if it took days or weeks to replace the starter (ordering new parts, tools, etc.).
  • I fancy myself an emerging Competent Man, so taking it to the repair shop would have been a betrayal of myself
  • Barring a huge error, doing the work myself almost certainly would be cheaper.
  • I’ve made peace (and arrangements) such that we can become a one car family, so any further maintenance on my car, particularly four-digit $ maintenance, is not going to happen anyway.

So, here was the problem presented to me:

old starter


That rusty looking thing that says Honda is the starter.  I had a nice new starter from amazon ($89.95 shipped) that had to get in there:


Car maintenance at this level is remarkably easy.  There are two bolts that hold the part in the car, and two wires that connect to the starter from the car.  Easy, right?

Well, it really is, but the only hard part is getting the bolts loose.  They’re pretty well buried in the car, as you can see, and I had a comedy of errors (and bloody knuckles) getting to them.  The biggest problem was figuring out what size the bolts actually were (14mm and 16mm, thankyouverymuch).  At least I think they were.  My 12 point 14mm wrench almost stripped the smaller bolt, and it took me forever to figure out how to even get a wrench onto the bolt underneath the starter.  I had the advantage of a diagnostic not available until recently, which is the cell phone digital picture of the offending bolt (if nothing else to make sure it actually was a bolt and not something else)…

So in the end, mission accomplished!


I know as much as you do about cars.

I have never changed a starter before.

But, using just a small handful of principles, I was able to do it.  Those principles include:

  • An awful lot of people have successfully done this kind of thing before
  • Designers make these sorts of things as simple as possible
  • If the engineers have not made it simple, there will be a lot of people on forums complaining about how hard it is and exactly how to do it

This goes far beyond starters.  I googled up the links above (which showed me exactly how to do it) in about 30 seconds.

The internet can teach you exactly how to do anything.

Seriously, we live in amazing and unprecedented times.  If I can change a starter in a few hours just using the internet and amazon, anyone can do it.  All you need is the will, desire, and a belief that you can do things for yourself.

So, in terms of a competent man or woman, this would be the continuum of starter replacement:

  • Buy a new car because you are unwilling to troubleshoot
  • Take the car to the dealership for troubleshooting / starter replacement
  • Take the car to a non-dealer maintenance shop for starter replacement
  • Take the car to a competent friend to help you replace it yourself
  • Replace it yourself (my level now)
  • Remove the starter, take it apart, replace brushes/stator etc. as necessary, reinstall same starter (aka Beast Mode, what I intend to do next time)

After all, this thing is just an electric motor, and I’m sure there’s a youtube video on rewinding starter motors, right?



{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Rikki February 2, 2015, 2:15 pm

    Specialize in your career, not in your life.

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