Making Jelly is not my Jam: a lesson on comparative advantage

My daughter dished out a pearl of wisdom one day while the two of us were making jam. This was during a time in my life when I was a practicing modern-day pioneer-woman.  I made my own bread, had a flock of chickens and chopped wood for the woodstove (In the snow. While pregnant. For reals.).

We had decided to make jam out of grapes that were growing in our orchard. I had sweet memories of making jam with my grandmother as a child, but had never made jam as an adult. I had a book with a recipe though, so we were good to go. I also learned from this book that grape jam is actually called grape jelly. I should probably have realized right then that I was out of my element.

Eva and I tied on our aprons and got to work. We harvested the grapes. Picked out the spiders. Removed the skins and seeds. Several hours later we had a cup of grape pulp, to which we added several cups of sugar and proceeded to boil on the stove for I don’t remember how long. It was long. And stressful at times.  Apparently sugar grape pulp burns easily.

At the end of the day, exhausted, hot, and sticky, we proudly examined our resulting jar of jam amidst the wreckage we had created in the kitchen.  That’s when Eva handed out her pearl. Peering into the jar with a head of curls set into place by the sugar vapor in the air she said, ‘Can’t you buy jam at the store?’.  I couldn’t help but laugh at how simple her alternative seemed relative to the chaos of our day (not to mention the kitchen cleaning project that now lay ahead of me).

While I cherish the memory of this day with my girl sweating over the stove in the kitchen, I haven’t made a jar of jam since. The process stressed me out, and the resulting messy kitchen was definitely not my jam. I know other people possess the talent, but not me.

Bread on the other hand, that’s more my pace.  Put a few simple ingredients together in the morning.  Revisit it later in the day. Spend some time contemplating life as you knead the dough.  Pop it in the oven and next thing you know you are rewarded with a splendid aroma and delicious loaves of bread.  As long as you remember to take it out of the oven in time, there are no emergencies when you’re making bread.

And that, my friends, is the essence of economics: comparative advantage.  Some people are good at making jam. Some people are good at making bread.  The jam maker can trade with the bread baker and they are both better off than they would be if they had each tried to make their own bread and jam.  We all have different talents, and have grown to specialize at different tasks, leaning on each other to survive in this world. Relying on, and helping others out, makes us all better off. 

While my days as Pioneer Kim are behind me, and I mostly buy my bread and jam at the store these days, there are lessons to be learned from my example.  Pioneer Kim was a bit of a stubborn DIY’er.  I got a kick out of living off the earth and knowing how to do all the things, but trying to juggle life on the frontier, a professional career and being a sane person got to be a bit too much eventually.  My chosen pioneer lifestyle was detracting from my ability to focus on my priorities and I was quite frankly doing a sub-par job at it all.  I needed to refocus on what was important to me, make the best use of my talents and leverage comparative advantage to help with the rest.

So take a moment to, ponder today’s lesson on jam (erm, jelly) and think about your priorities –whether the way you spend your time, money and energy each day enhances or detracts from your ability to focus on what’s important to you.  Are you making the most of your talents and the resources available to you?  We’ll dig deeper into how to think more systematically about these questions in later blog posts, but I can tell you now that it almost always comes down to your goals and priorities.  Getting those down in writing is a great place to start.

Stay tuned to the blog for more economic insights from Kim and the latest research on how to optimize your life.  Sign up for our newsletter below to be the first to hear about new articles.