How Much Specialization?

You’re reading this article because of the power of specialization. I certainly wouldn’t be spending today writing an article if I had to grow all my own food, build my own house and sew my own clothing.

Without specialization, the internet wouldn’t exist either. Ditto for computers, cars, antibiotics and probably everything more sophisticated than a stone tool. This was Adam Smith’s insight over two hundred years ago and it is responsible for most of the technological wonders we take for granted today.

The power of specialization is related to the size of the economy as a whole. If you have an economy of only one village, there’s only so much specialization. Maybe a blacksmith and a teacher, but no composers or scientists. A bigger, more globalized economy means there is an increased payoff for specialization.

These two facts, specialization creates wealth and specialization is easier in our globalized world, has caused many people to pronounce that the generalist is dead. Why hire a jack of all trades, if he is a master of none?

Perils of Excessive Specialization

The dangers of specialization are similar to those faced by investors who don’t diversify their portfolios. Holding most of your money in one asset is great when that asset performs well, but can be disastrous when it crashes.

Consider factory workers who lost their jobs after years working in manufacturing. They had specialized and earned good wages when industry was booming. Now many are near retirement age and being forced to consider new careers.

The nouveau riche of the tech world are reaping the rewards of this industry’s boom—but nothing lasts forever. Political change could stifle innovation, lowering returns to normal levels. Economic centers could shift away from the West, to India or China. Computation performance growth may slow to a crawl, either from physical limitations or software complexity, maturing the industry. I don’t see the situation as dire, but simply that making bets on a rapidly changing future is always tricky.

Ignoring the large rises and falls of economic movements, the world is constantly being punctuated by much smaller changes. Companies flick in and out of business, each time carrying a risk that total specialization might result in a niche skillset becoming obsolete.

Even if the world were a stable place, the paucity of information can make it tricky to specialize. I believe the increased specialization explains a lot of the twentysomething angst many of us feel. Our generation doesn’t know what to do with our lives because there are so many options—and the threat of making the wrong choice weighs heavy.

How can an 18-year old, who is perhaps only aware of a small percentage of all possible careers (and likely has poor, caricatured information about even that sliver) possibly make a sound decision?

Balancing Depth and Breadth

Two things seem clear in my mind:

  1. Specialization is essential. The logic of our world demands it. Renaissance men and women can survive only if that breadth is paired with meaningful depth.
  2. Specialization without any breadth is risky. Living inside a self-made career bubble of hyper-focused skillsets can be comfortable, but it has hidden costs. The existential cost of changing fortunes making your skills less valuable, and the less noticeable but still present opportunity cost of missed opportunities because you specialized in the wrong line of work.

How can we cope with these two seemingly contradictory forces in our lives? I’ve spent a lot of time searching for heuristics, or simple rules, that can help make decisions about where I should invest, given both the necessity of specialization and the risks it creates.

Heuristic #1: Moving Upwind

Paul Graham suggests this rule of thumb: when you aren’t sure which path to pursue (which would presumably include avenues of increased specialization and increased breadth), pick the one that yields the most subsequent options.

A clear example of this is in education. Engineering majors can do an MBA, but business majors generally can’t do a masters of engineering. Engineering, in this case, has more downwind options than business.

I’ve used this approach when picking projects to pursue. Before starting my MIT Challenge, I wondered whether I would be better off building my business in a more traditional way—new books, courses and articles. Ultimately I decided that a year invested in doing something unique had more possibilities stemming from it than adding another year of business development.

Heuristic #2: Specialize in Work, Generalize in Play

Another approach I’ve seen work well is to keep your work focused, but your intellectual diet varied and rich. You might be an enterprise software developer by day, but learn languages and study history by night.

This approach seems to offer more stability than strictly focusing in one field. The ideas, people and experiences from off-hour pursuits allow you to avoid some of the most perilous groupthink that tends to plague communities of specialists.

The tricky part is drawing the line between work and play. If you work on a career-focused project in your off hours, does this break the heuristic? What if you devote considerable energy to working on a hobbyist passion? The exact line isn’t specified.

As a side note, in speaking with people who have achieved enormous professional success, it is surprising how often they were also competent in completely unrelated domains. Richard Feynman was a Portuguese-speaking lock-picker. Norman Foster is an accomplished pilot. Now for the hard question: did their breadth aid their careers, or did they have simultaneous accomplishments simply because they were good at getting good?

Heuristic #3: Cycle Depth and Breadth

A final heuristic I’ve used to some success has been oscillating between periods of specialization and periods of exploration. I added on a year to my undergraduate studies to live in France.

Tim Ferriss recommends a similar approach in his bestseller, advocating for mini-retirements instead of lumping them all at the end of your life. Ostensibly for enjoying life more, the strategy might have some career advantages as well if the retirement isn’t simply relaxing but engaged exploration in some area adjacent to your career space.

The obvious difficulty here is that professions have a momentum to them which can be hard to swim against. Your boss, professor or clients may not care to see you alter course in a dedicated burst.

Is Increased Specialization an Inevitable Destiny?

Economies are becoming increasingly integrated, which suggests, barring catastrophe, that specialization is our destiny. But our economies are also changing rapidly. If your job, or even career, will switch several times in your lifetime, that suggests a certain amount of breadth will be required as well to handle the transitions smoothly.

I’m hoping for a world where we can have both—a specific skillset to contribute to an integrated world, but also the ability to see outside the bubble in which we live.

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