Specialization Is Wrong, This is What You Should Do Instead

Specialization Is Wrong, This is What You Should Do Instead

Table of Contents

You’ve been fed with the idea of specialization for a long time. Mastery of multiple disciplines is impossible. At least, this is what some members of your family, friends and colleagues are trying to force you to believe. It almost seems like a living in the matrix (one of favorite movies) … In this post, I will give you the chance to taste the harsh truth. You will discover where the whole specialization thing began and what you can focus on instead. Are you ready to explore some contrarian thoughts? Here is the red pill …

Where Specialization Began

There are two possible answers. For the first one we have to go very far back to the past. How far? This answer lies in the time when the ancestors of modern humans started to create and live in small groups. It was at this time, when our ancestors started to see specialization as something quite useful. Imagine yourself back then. You have to find something to eat and drink every day in order to survive. You also have to be able to defend yourself when necessary. Otherwise, it is possible that it will be you who will end up on the menu. Remember, other members of your tribe have no interest in wasting time with weak individuals.

Anyway, back to specialization … These primitive humanoids soon realized that they can divide and delegate everyday tasks amongst the members of the tribe. Why should everyone spend the whole day hunting and collecting resources? Instead, they can do one thing and leave the second to others. This way, they can increase their chance to survive as a tribe. What’s more, with this approach they can exploit abilities of every individual and use them in the best way possible. In other words, if you are a great hunter, you should spend the majority of your time hunting. This is what you do the best.

There is no need why should you sacrifice your skills for foraging berries or searching for water. There are other members of the tribe who can take care about that. As you can see, you don’t need extremely high intelligence to understand how can you benefit from this “agreement”. So, do what you can do the best and let us get done the rest.

The second possible answer to where specialization made its breakthrough is during industrial revolution. Sure, people were used to doing specific jobs or tasks before, but it was when we started to build the first factories when specialization experienced its boom and rocket-like rise. When workers started to move to factories, they also changed the way they worked. From now on, they would spend the majority of their time literally on one place doing one thing. Just imagine it … The same repetitive task done from the early morning to the late evening. Then, you will go home, have a dinner with your family or alone and go to bed. The next day you will repeat this cycle will again. The, again and again until you will retire.

So, this is the second possible explanation of where specialization began. For many of you reading this post, the second answer probably sounds familiar. Nowadays, you don’t have to be a factory worker. There are lot of jobs that look similar and their numbers are increasing. This may be also the reason why work-life balance is such a hot topic in the day and age. Paradoxically, it is also this factory-like specialization what makes people question their jobs. Having said that, I don’t mean that this “crisis” is the result of specialization. Not at all. Although it can be partially responsible for it as well. Anyway, do you really like the current state of things?

From Specialization to … Expert Generalist

Let’s say you’ve decided to drop the idea of specialization and focusing on one thing for our whole life. What other way or option do we have at our disposal? Let me introduce you to the idea of “expert generalist”. We can think about expert generalist as a direct rival of specialization and 10,000 hour rule. This term was originally coined by Orit Gadiesh. The simplest definition of this term is: “A person with the ability and curiosity to master and collect expertise in many different disciplines, industries, skills, capabilities, countries, and topics.” In other words, master of many trades.

Here are some good news for you. If you are looking for the secret that separates the greatest innovators in the history, you are on the right place at the right time. The cold truth many people will never want to tell you is that all these people had one thing in common. They had a wide knowledge base covering a variety of topics. In other words, they were expert generalists. It was this, what was the foundation for their creativity. We will discuss this more in separate section. Now, back to the expert generalist …

Traits of Expert Generalist

As it seems, there are two necessary traits that you must either have or acquire. The first one is openness to new experiences. It is well known fact that creativity requires you to be open to new experiences. If you are not willing to take the risk and taste unknown waters – try something new – being creative will be hard. You should actively push yourself out of the comfort zone. The easiest thing is to seek out and try new things in your everyday life or to do them differently. It can be as easy as changing the route you usually travel to work, trying new cuisine, talking to strangers, reading books or magazines from different topics. You can also try to shake up your daily routines.

Second trait of expert generalists is a need to structure relevant situations in meaningful ways and to understand the world. This includes indulging in activities such as problem solving, attending debates and idea evaluation. It is about drawing analogies between individual subjects and make new connections. This is, in psychology, also called as a need for cognition.

Unfortunately, having a broad spectrum of hobbies or interests will not make it. You need more than just that. You have to be willing to go both, wide and deep. So, in order to embrace the mindset and approach of expert generalist you have to be willing to explore wide range of disciplines and strive to acquire deep knowledge in all of them. Only then, you will be able to use the knowledge you gathered to create previously mention analogies and connections.

If you are not naturally driven to think and explore topics in-depth, you should make it your daily routine to invest certain amount of time and effort to learn new things. With enough time devoted to this routine, there is a big change that the whole process of learning will become a pleasurable activity for you. Then, you will have to force yourself to do other things instead. You just have to endure the first couple of harder days or weeks. Remember, learning is just a skill.

Expert Generalist and Mastery

One of the most often used arguments for becoming a specialist is that it is the only way to master any subject. It sounds logical. Just think about how much knowledge one has to absorb and the amount of practice one has to go through. It is really no surprise that many people would be willing to bet their life on this theory. Unfortunately, these people are wrong. Before I will tell you any arguments to support and defend this thesis, let me list couple of names. I am sure you will know some of them. Here we go … Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Isaac Asimov, Ray Kurzweil and Nick Bostrom. Yes, names are sorted chronologically.

Now, do you know what have all these people in common? In most cases, the majority of people will agree on at least two things. First, all of them are considered geniuses. And, second, all of them have deep knowledge in broad range of subjects. Many of these people were experts in advanced topics such as mathematics, physics, philosophy, economy, biology, astronomy and more. The reason I came up with all these names is simple. I promised you that I will tell you some arguments to support and defend my claim. Well, this group of people is my heavyweight class argument. It is this group of giants on which I want to show you that it is quite possible to master more than one subject.

What’s more, as you can see on given examples, it is possible to become master even in subjects that may not seem to be related on the first view. My favorite example of a man going against specialization is Leonardo Da Vinci. This man is the best model of a polymath and renaissance man at its core. Although I probably don’t have to introduce him to you, here is a short curriculum vitae anyway. Scientists, mathematician, astronomer, biologist, artist, sculpturer, inventor, physicist, philosopher, architect, engineer, writer, musician. If I forgot any area, accept my apologies. It’s hard to remember all the subjects this man was exploring and pushing forward.

The first question that comes to my mind is following: Did Leonardo achieved mastery in all the areas he was interested in? Unfortunately, I can’t give you satisfactory answer to this question. Although we have many notes and books Leonardo created during his lifetime, no one will ever be able to say whether he was a true master in all of his trades. That being said, let me point out a fact that is, by my opinion much more important. Master or not, his range of knowledge was still much larger than knowledge of many people living today. This is something we should think about.

Defining Mastery

Anyway, the first problem that comes when thinking about “mastery” is that it is very vague concept. There are many different definitions of this term. Mastery can be, for example, defined such as possession of great skillfulness and knowledge of some subject or activity. It can also be defined such as knowledge and skill that allows you to do, use, or understand something very well. The third definition I will give you is that mastering is about understanding the interaction of nuances of an activity, and being able to perform the activity with precision and finesse.

As you can from the definition examples, trying to draw some exact line where person reach a mastery is almost herculean task. If you try to apply the well-known 10,000 hour rule, it will not help you either. The reason is that even if you will pursue one activity for this time span, it doesn’t guarantee you will master that activity. There are many important factors that has to be implemented into your daily practice in order to make it deliberate and to start checking your 10,000 hours calendar. Also, I would like to point out that different activities or subjects may require different amount of practice and knowledge.

To give you an example, think about all the requisites that gaining a mastery in design involves. Then, do the same thing, but replace design with mathematics. Now, do the same with focus on mastery of playing on guitar or violin. Last, let’s take Sudoku. Just from these four examples, we can deduce that mastery is not a constant. In a fact, it seems to be more like a variable changing with each subject you will want to apply it to. To strengthen this statement we can also think about examples from areas such as sport, like gaining mastery in tennis or billiard.

Given the examples above, it is now more understandable why the definition of mastery is so vague. Anyway, in order to move somewhere from here, let’s use the last definition as a guiding indicator. Again, the definition is following: mastery being defined as an understanding of nuances of an activity and an ability to perform this activity with precision and finesse.

Mastery and Working Effortlessly

One thing you may notice is that none of the definitions mentioned difficulty of pursuing the activity or subject. Meaning, gaining mastery will not guarantee you will be able to perform chosen activity or pursue chosen subject without struggles. Mastery will not transform demanding activity requiring hours of focused work into quick task you can get done in thirty minutes. For example, although Picasso mastered painting, it would still take him big amount of time to create new artwork. Or, think about Stephen King. He has already written more than sixty five books.

With this amount of work he can definitely be called a master in writing horror literature. However, it doesn’t mean he can now write a book in one day while preparing his cup of tea. This is an important fact about mastery you should understand. Specialization or not, gaining mastery in any subject will never guarantee it will become a piece of cake. Yes, it will be easier in some degree. However, you will still have to expend some amount of energy to perform. This fact also adds to the vagueness of the definition of mastery.

Like it or not, even though you will dedicate your whole life to mastery of one or more subjects, don’t expect these subjects to become exponentially easier. To support this statement, watch living masters performing their craft. Does Rodger Federer, Magnus Carlsen, Kobe Bryant or Jean-Pierre Serre look like it’s an easy task for them to pursue their craft? Certainly not. Although it is not probable, in case you are pursuing something in the idea of making it easier, you should reconsider your intentions and goals. Here is the thing, part of becoming a master is also that inner need to push boundaries and challenge existing assumptions.

Meaning, it is more likely you will naturally incline to harder and more difficult areas of your expertise. So, if living an easy and effortless life is your goal, this is not the path you should strike. On the other hand, if you are focused on fulfillment, happiness, satisfaction and shit tone of flow … Go ahead. Dedication to mastery of anything is the best way to get it.

Expert Generalist’s Way to Mastery

After discussing specialization, mastery and becoming an expert generalist, let’s quickly explore two ways how you can gain mastery in more than one area. These two ways, tools or hacks, if you want, are 80/20 rule and compound effect. Both of these tools will help you gain more knowledge in shorter time span than you would need otherwise.

The 80/20 Rule

The first we will start with is the 80/20 rule, or Pareto Principle. We already discussed this rule couple times, so I will give you shorter and simpler definition of it. Pareto principle states the majority of outputs (results) come from minority of inputs. In other words, 80 percent of results will come from 20 percent of activities. This ratio can vary. It can be 90/10, 70/30, 60/40, 88/12 and so on. Anyway this principle becomes much more interesting when you think about it in terms of our own learning and growth potential.

If we assume that achieving mastery of some subject takes 10,000 hours or approximately 20 years of deliberate practice, we can then apply 80/20 rule and work backwards. In other words, if 80 percent of the results come from 20 percent, then we can argue that achieving 80 percent of mastery can require only 20 percent of the total time. If we do the math, it might be possible to achieve 80 percent of mastery in just 2,000 hours, or approximately four years. Sure, it is just a theory, but by following this approach, you have nothing to lose.

The takeaway is simple: focus on the minimum effective dose in both, acquiring new knowledge and dedicated practice. Look for activities and resources that will give you the biggest leverage. Remember, instead of trying to maximize the input, narrow your focus on maximizing the output.

Compound Effect

The second tools to kind of shortcut the path to mastery is compound effect. This is one of the things people advocating the specialization party are constantly forgetting about. In the simplest terms, compound effect describes how small actions or changes build up with time can lead to bigger and more powerful outcomes. You can imagine it as putting aside a small amount of money and getting an interest from it. In the beginning, the interest you will get will be small, almost too small to be mentioned. However, with time it will get more interesting.

The same thing can be applied to learning as well. Let’s assume two things. First, learning is a skill. Second, every skill will become easier with dedicated deliberate practice. As a result, acquiring whatever discipline you want to learn will become easier as you will learning it. And, this will apply on your skill of learning and knowledge acquisition itself as well. What’s more, the knowledge you already know can also be used as a building block.

What I mean by that is that your ability to learn new subjects will improve because you will not have to start with completely blank slate. Instead, you will be able to connect new information to knowledge you already have. Have you ever heard about standing on the shoulders of giants? This is the exact same thing. You will build on previous knowledge and the more knowledge you will have, the easier and faster it will become to learn and master new disciplines.

The last thing to mention is that just because it took you x number of hours to get from beginner to intermediate, it doesn’t mean it will take you the same amount of time to progress on more advanced level. In other words, the time required to progress from one stage to another will vary. Also, your learning skills are flexible as well and can be trained like a muscle. With time invested into dedicated regular training your skill to learn will improve as well.

Closing Thoughts on Specialization

That’s all for today folks. I think that this post already poked you enough to question the assumptions we discussed today. However, I have couple last words to leave you with … Don’t do something, like specialization, just because another person told you to do so. If you want to specialize, go ahead and do it. Otherwise, you don’t have to. Remember that there is nothing like one size that fits all. In order to find what works best for you, you will have to experiment with different ideas, strategies and approaches.

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By Alex Devero

I'm Founder/CEO of DEVERO Corporation. Entrepreneur, designer, developer. My mission and MTP is to accelerate the development of humankind through technology.

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