This is a question that I think few people consider seriously and yet I think in today’s world it is a very important question. I will celebrate (or mourn) my 50th birthday this year. I think I’ve lived about one half of my adult life and this question is something I have been thinking about. I will attempt an answer in this article.
In today’s hyper-specialized world I think the “well-rounded” person person is disappearing. By default we are becoming specialists. I graduated college with a computer science degree and went into the IT profession. I am profoundly ignorant of most of the field. The amount of knowledge or skill in most fields is so vast and increasing so rapidly that you can likely only be a narrowly focused specialist if you want to achieve anything significant.
To take one example, the medical general practitioner is becoming almost uselessly behind in every area; the field is so vast nobody can begin to hope to be much of a generalist and be of as much use as the internet. You don’t go to a criminal lawyer to do your taxes. I follow several scientific fields and the well-known scientists are usually very narrowly focused in a sub-specialty of their field. The same thing is true with athletes and artists. Yo-Yo Ma is a cellist and audiences don’t pay to hear him play the trumpet. Bobby Fischer focused on chess so much from a very young age he never learned to be a competent human being and he ended up a raving lunatic. The Olympic decathlon champion probably couldn’t win a college level (or maybe high-school) competition in any particular event, and despite Michael Jordon’s undeniably rare athletic skills he couldn’t play baseball at the professional level. As a blogger, one of the most consistent pieces of advice I hear is to find and focus on a narrow niche (which I ignore). In other words, be a super specialist.
Of course there are exceptions but we are talking about relatively normal people – you and me. A few centuries ago you could probably learn a lot about a lot of different subjects and be considered to have a reasonably well-rounded intellect. Many educated people achieved this universal knowledge and some remarkably talented people actually became true polymaths or Renaissance Men (e.g. Leonardo Da Vinci). I don’t think this is realistic anymore (there may be a few exceptions) and the embarrassing result is that many world-class experts in one area try to throw their weight around on things they are unqualified to speak about (artistic people who think they are political or economic experts come to mind).
In times past many people out of necessity were multi-skilled in a variety of activities and if they couldn’t do it themselves it didn’t get done. Even in the western world, at the practical skill level, this persisted well into the 20th century in rural areas on farms and ranches. My father is a do-it-yourself handy man in many different areas. I can barely hammer a nail.
We love and are captivated by human excellence and in all fields we benefit from the single-minded focus of the experts. I wouldn’t want to live in a world without them. Specialization is undoubtedly productive and has produced great wealth. While this hyper-specialization seems necessary for significant achievement and economic progress, the question still remains should you try to be an expert or a more well-rounded generalist?
And The Answer Is?
I don’t know, but I’ll take a shot. Given the hyper-specialized world we live in the obvious answer seems to be that you should become a narrowly-focused expert. No matter what you choose to be doing at any particular time, there are going to be any number of other people who are specialized in that area and doing almost nothing else. If you aren’t focusing most of your time on it, they will be much better at it than you. Since the world is so connected, people who want their services will be able to find them. You are never going to be able to out compete the specialist in a specialty. If you don’t want to spend a lot of time at your chosen field, there will be others who easily surpass you.
I think if you want to achieve at very high levels this is the answer. If you want to excel in your career, achieve recognition, money, or status I don’t think you have much of a choice. While there may be exceptions, you probably aren’t one of the genetic freaks who will be one of them. I’m certainly not.
But I Hate That Answer
My heart’s desire is to have a number of pursuits and areas of interest and do them all well. I don’t think just dabbling in a bunch of different things gives one much satisfaction. You need to achieve some level of competence to feel some accomplishment. I have been fairly specialized most of my life and it seems like I constantly need to be more specialized to keep up and be good. I absolutely hate it. I’ve been too focused and many things I want to pursue have been left by the wayside. I’m determined to change that.
The High Cost of Expertise
To achieve high-level expertise you have to devote enormous amounts of effort. In others we see the results, but not the painful effort that went into those achievements. Most skills have a fairly steep initial learning curve and it takes quite a bit of effort to achieve any competence. However, once you achieve a certain basic competence in something, improvement is very rapid; you are initially getting a lot of results for your effort. These are the boom times. As you continue to rise in expertise, the improvements come more slowly; the returns diminish At the highest levels it may take enormous effort to achieve even tiny incremental improvements.
So once you achieve a certain level of competence the question to ask yourself is it worth the continued effort to gain even higher levels? It all depends upon what you want. If you want the recognition, money, achievement, or simply the satisfaction that comes from expertise then go for it.
Here are some things I have zero competence in that I would like to become reasonably competent doing. Speaking multiple languages, a martial art, a sketch artist, playing chess, being a published writer, and some other things. I barely know a few words in any other language than my native English. But I would like to learn another language. Since I live in the Southern Texas, Spanish is the obvious choice. It would have a lot of practical advantages. I could spend a tremendous amount of effort to become remarkably fluent in Spanish or I could spend the same amount of effort to become reasonably fluent in both Spanish and French and maybe even a third language.
Maybe instead of learning three languages, I could become reasonably fluent in Spanish and also learn to be a decent pencil artist and achieve a middle level belt in a martial art. To me this kind of thinking clearly lays out the consequences of expertise – the opportunities you give up.
My gut instinct and personal experience says that to achieve the best life satisfaction, maybe being an expert isn’t the right choice. This is something everyone has to decide for themselves, but societal pressure seems to be on becoming an expert; being the best you can be and all that. I’m pretty sure that’s the way to high achievement in anything.
I’m just not sure that’s the way to high happiness with your life. To give up on expertise, you will have to give up some other things, but I think for many if not most people it’s worth it. Don’t get caught in the trap unless you are really sure that’s what you want. Consider earning a living four or five hours a day and spending the rest of your precious time on other pursuits. After a career of 30 years, those 12 to 14 hour days may just not have been worth it.
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