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.

  • Shea Matthew Fisher

    Thanks for this, Scott. It was nice to get a balanced and nuanced treatment of what is usually offered as a completely either/or dichotomy. This helped me figure how I plan to mix deep focus with my many varied interests.

  • John

    Hi Scott,

    I love your blog!

    I think replacing the idea of becoming specialized with “Becoming So Good They Can’t Ignore You” 🙂 would be a better way to live.

    In my humble opinion people should not fear becoming too specialized as much as being mediocre at what they have “specialized”.

    I am sure you have probably read the book “Talent is Overrated”. The first thing the author says is that most people spend 10+ years doing a single job and they are average at it! In my opinion this is the BIG problem.

  • Dang

    really like this and thnaks

  • Adam

    This is some good food for thought. I was actually just thinking about this topic when I realized that in less then 2 weeks I’d be launching a website I built for a client (through a business I run on my own), working some volunteer shifts as an EMT on an ambulance, recovering a capsized fishing kayak from the bottom of a lake using scuba gear, and replacing the alternator on my truck myself.

    I’ve always picked a certain skill to be my “specialty”, the one that I become very good at, and use to pay my bills, in this case programming. I focus on the parts I do well with, and outsource the ones I don’t have time to gain proficiency, like graphic design. The others fall in other categories, and are only given time if I’m staying good enough with the primary ones. Being an EMT is to acquire skills to support my active hobbies, but could be a fallback career. Learning to dive was for recreation (most of my recreation involves learning in some way), could also be a fallback career with one more certification (a bilingual, EMT, dive instructor provides lots of options. Live aboard dive ship in the Caribbean perhaps?). And the alternator was simply cost analysis. It was a simple enough job that the 2 hours of my time in my driveway was probably less then the total time and cost of taking it into a shop, compared to my hourly rate programming.

  • Shrutarshi Basu

    I think you’ve stumbled on an interesting dichotomy with your heuristic #2. However I think you’re a bit off the mark. I don’t think a strict separation of work and play is the best way to go. In fact, when I think of people like Feynman (and the happy high achievers I know in real life), they do have a bunch of serious hobbies. But instead of dividing up their life into work and play, they seem to be pursuing a sort of higher order unification of the two. I think that is one of the keys to living a fulfilling and successful life. By contrast I’m increasingly convinced that “work-life balance” represents a false dichotomy.

  • Michael

    Loving number 2, which is my style, i work hard when at work, but spend my free time focusing on my passions which happen to be computing(including pc repair) and programming(mostly web dev), don’t think there will be a shortage of jobs in anythign computer related anytime soon. similarly most fields involving repair tend to be good as long as you don’t focus in too specifically on one niche for example study mechanic, but not just a mercedes mechanic, unless there isn’t too big a gap to move to another model.

    very good advice

  • Barry

    Scott,

    I agree with you completely. I received by BS EECS about three decades ago and I always intuitively kept my options open, moving into the sales and marketing world, able to adapt to changing circumstances and the needs of the day. I’m lucky that I had the desire to study engineering and, frankly, complete the degree. It was hard but well worth it.

    Thank you for your writing and blog. I find them very well thought out and helpful. These days I’m studying Java and, soon, moving to C++ and Objective-C, some things I’d always wanted to do. Remarkable that I can take Stanford classes for free! How cool is that? Amazing.

    Best,

    Barry

  • Joji

    Dear Scott, Recently I came to know about you and your blog. I went through many of your posts , mainly on studying. But I dont understand what do you mean by saying aceing exams without studying. Will you please say me what do you mean by saying the word studying? Is it cramming whole night just before the exam or being a bookworm ? I an in a big confusion. Will you please give me a reply. – Joji

  • Emily

    Excellent post, thank you!

    I wonder if the trend among young people to develop avid, varied, and often quite traditional skills as hobbies (pickling things, making yogurt from scratch, etc.) is in part a reaction to specialization-induced anxiety of having hyper-focussed day jobs.

  • lingholic

    Great article as usual Scott.

    I can really relate to what you’ve said here. I’ve had a passion for languages for quite a few years, but I chose not to study this as my major at university. Why? Because I decided to keep it as a passion, something to develop on my own time. I really think it’s super important to keep your intellectual diet varied and rich. That’s also why I’ve learned some photography, web design, and a few other things.

    I also have no doubt that having a “generalization in play” can help to become more successful in whatever professional line of work you end up doing. Things are always related in some way or another, even if it’s totally unapparent on the surface.

    Cheers,

    Sam

  • Louisa

    Hi Scott,

    According to my MBTI results, I am an ENTP, aka the typical “généraliste”.
    I don’t know what you think about that test, but anyway I find that it fits me.

    I strongly believe that there’re people who just aren’t capable of specialization. There are “jack of all trades” by nature. Trying to specialize in one field and becoming an expert definitely make them miserable.
    Their strength resides in their ability to go in width, not in depth. Think Leonardo de Vinci VS Mozart.

    There is obviously a balance that we all have to seek. You mention not over-specializing, which is also conversely true.

    However, you also mentioned the importance of not paying too much attention on weaknesses, and instead focusing on strengths.

    As you explained, we live in a world that can turn around thanks -in a significant way- to specialization. The generalists out-there don’t feel at home.

    My question ==>What attitude and goals should they strive for in order to play on their strengths, instead of feeling like losers who are not adapted to the real world ?

    This is a very serious question that has been puzzling me for several years now. I would appreciate if you could either respond to this comment, or -even better- write a post about it.

    Links :
    http://www.personalitypage.com
    http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/0
    http://www.amazon.com/Renaissa

  • Steve Hayes

    I don’t know if increased specialization is an inevitable destiny but I think this can vary a lot depends on what the person wants to achieve.
    Some people don’t have big dreams and that is unfortunate – for those I don’t think specialization will help but for the ones willing to take big risks and have a great life I think specialization is a must.
    But, I got your point and it is an interesting perspective.
    Nice sharing.

  • Paul

    Hi Scott,

    Great Article!

    Couldn’t agree more on your vision of depth vs breadth.

    After reading this article though, I wonder what’s your take on “depth-first” vs “breadth-first”. What I mean by that is: Imagine you have 3 1 hour study sessions a day. Would you rather invest these 3 daily sessions to one subject until you master it and then get to the next one, or use each of them to study different topics (or maybe even 2 for your specialization and 1 for “broadening” subjects).

    Just curious…

  • Mike Martel

    This is why I still think there is value in a good liberal arts education. There is still a need to think, understand broad concepts – especially in the context of the world around us. Too often higher level education is viewed as a trade school – to learn a particular skill e.g. coding or engineering. Being good a skill is fine, but there has to be a need to improvise and adapt as the market and world changes. Too many specialists wind up in the unemployment line.

  • Sam

    I think I really enjoyed the drive from top to bottom.
    Its quite thought provoking and answer rendering.

    I ‘ve always being a believer of “being versatile ” so one can be balanced in life.

    With my inate competence in communication, I decided to go for a biz course (economics) and am really passionate about electronics. Am a laptop technician in essence.

    For me its getting ballanced and fun all the way.

  • pexplorer

    Hi Scott. Another insightful post. I like how you seem to challenge the status quo without sounding like you are. For example, how often have you heard that you should go to school, get a job, and retire at 65? I love your idea of mini-retirement, in fact I’m doing that for myself right now (I’m 38)!

    Keep up the great work!

    Also, I think the MIT challenge was a brilliant idea. Just how much can I accomplish if I really focus?

  • Andraz

    I agree with lingholic.
    Intellectual diet must be varied and rich. In my experience successful people are good at many things. I always dreamt to be someone like Benjamin Franklin. I think you must love learning than nothing is hard.

  • Leon

    If business is less upwind, why did you take a business degree?

  • Rohit Gupta

    I’m reminded of a book named, “Rational Optimist” by Matt Ridley, after reading your article. I really like your structured approach.

  • Mosbie Chiweza

    I saw this a bit late but I’m interested.

    I agree with the first heuristic. Good point raised Scott!

    Another thing to consider though in specialization is the availability of automation and software. AI and automation is taking major leaps lately so specialization might not be as important in humans as much.

    Also we’re currently living in what someone called, a ‘mind economy’ which means that whilst skills are pretty useful, we’re more into mind power now, a graphic designer who’s cognitevely talented rather than software talented is counted more valuable.

    The good thing about this is that diversification in mental abilities rather than skills can be reached at a certain depth thanks to new theories and ideas such as neuroplasticity. Although people may be increasingly adept in one mental area, science is constantly showing us that our brains are more complex and less inclined to sticking to one view. Think of the left brain/right brain debunks.

    The future includes specialization yes but let’s not forget the availability of automation for skills in general and the prospect of our diverse minds

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