“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
Growing up, I was instructed to pick one career and take the path from high school to the lucrative career of my choice. Over and over again, I heard the advice to focus on one skill in order to make a career out of it.
I don’t know about you, but my natural tendencies and interests make such advice nearly impossible to follow. My interests range from technology to education to agriculture to health, making it really difficult for me to simply focus on one of the above.
Recently, I came across Tim Ferriss’s post about being a jack of all trades, and it started to get me thinking about the principles behind the well-intentioned specialization advice.
The argument for becoming a specialist rather than a generalist is that specialists have depth in one field, making it easier to leverage that one skill in order to make money and be effective in his or her career. I find the reasoning behind this argument extremely sound, and agree that everyone should aim to for depth in fields that their interested in.
But what I’ve begun to realize is that people generally overestimate how much time it takes to becoming world class at a skill. With the level of resources we have available to us in our modern day, becoming an expert at certain skills has never been easier.
In fact, I’ve found that people who are constantly learning new things beyond the scope of their comfort zone have an even easier time becoming world class at new skills.
The specialist who spends their entire life learning one skill may make more money doing what they do best, but the generalist who intentionally, systematically, and purposefully learns and explores are much more fulfilled with a vast variety of experiences, can make internal interdisciplinary connections, and are all around much more interesting people to be around.
The key to being successful as a generalist is to be constantly mindful of the story you are creating. The worst generalist, the person which the conventional wisdom warns not to be, is the one who can’t make up their mind about what they want to do, switching focuses whenever something becomes too challenging or emotionally distressing. To be a successful generalist means being very focused on a day to day basis, specializing on a daily basis so that they can generalize on a yearly basis.
The point is, specialization is for insects. Humans have such great capacities to learn and explore a whole breadth of topics as well as take the time to explore the depth, so long as one is intentional about it.