Consider Specialization: The Benefits (and drawbacks) of Specialization

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.

The above quote is from Robert A. Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love. It’s sometimes quoted un-ironically as an argument against specialization. On the other hand, there is the quote, “A jack of all trades is a master of none”. Often, specialization is contrasted with being a well-rounded person, so there is often a social component. My take is, specialization is still underrated. If the goal is results, not how you appear to others, specialization is probably the way to go.

Contrary to what you see online, the vast majority of people who are successful on paper and who have good careers and decent-sized nest eggs, do not have profound insights into society, or are especially worldly or erudite people. When you read the post histories of high-net-worth people on social media, like on Reddit, nothing about these individuals stands out as these being exceptionally smart or having other other-worldly attributes. Instead, they specialized at something and became good enough to become wealthy at it.

Specialization can help close a modest IQ gap. Someone with a 120 IQ who specializes can probably overcome the disadvantage of competing against someone with a 130-140 IQ who does not specialize at said task and is distracted with multiple things. That everyone gets 24 hours in a day is one of the few equalizers in life. It’s not like the smartest person is always the most successful at any field. For example, compare Einstein, who was more of a specialist, to John Von Neumann, who was so smart he was an expert at seemingly everything and made contributions to many fields. The latter was smarter but the former’s contributions are typically considered more seminal or impactful.

For outlier-levels of wealth, specialization is often necessary. This entails having to become the best–or at least in the top tier–in the world at understanding said technology or industry, like Elon Musk and electric cars, Bill Gates and operating systems, or Steve Jobs and personal computers. This requires a lot of time and attention, and does not leave much room for leisurely intellectual endeavors or being multi-faceted.

But generalists can make a good income too, even comparable to tech salaries, like on Substack or monetizing engagement on Twitter or other social media. Generalists seem to dominate discourse and have social status online, either writing pithy but viral tweets of their social observations, or longer ‘think pieces’, which also go viral. Ultimately, there are pros and cons for both. For generalists, the trade-off is not becoming super-wealthy or an industry expert/leader. For specialists, the trade-off is worse socialization or appearing single-dimensional. Von Neumann could go to a social event and he knew more outside of physics or computer science than even experts at those fields, like history.

Imagine someone who specializes at plumbing. It’s all he knows and he makes a good living it. But at social occasions, unless the discussion involves plumbing, he’s going to come off as sorta dull or uninteresting. He’s not going to have incisive insights about contemporary social phenomena or hold well-informed opinions about political issues (except perhaps for things that applicable to his plumbing business, like regulation or taxes). [0] Conversely, a writer for The New Yorker will know a lot about many things, albeit shallowly, so perhaps he appears smarter to outsiders because he can converse extemporaneously about a wide range of things, like pop culture or politics.

In ‘real life’ and online, specialists sometimes come off as disagreeable or hard-headed, traits often described of Einstein and Newton compared to the gregarious Neumann, but often without the hidden charm or other endearing traits depicted in Hollywood that offsets this (e.g. the anti-hero archetype). This is perhaps ideal for ‘getting things done’, but not for persuading strangers. Aspiring politicians or former generals who succeeded in business or at war often find that the rules or traits that worked in the boardroom or on the battlefield does not apply when trying to convince voters or win-over the media.

For example, Leslie Richard Groves Jr. was a brilliant manager who directed the Manhattan Project, but his poor social graces stunted his career after the war:

The Chief of Staff of the United States Army, General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, met with Groves on 30 January 1948 to evaluate his performance. Eisenhower recounted a long list of complaints about Groves pertaining to his rudeness, arrogance, insensitivity, contempt for the rules, and maneuvering for promotion out of turn. Eisenhower made it clear that Groves would never become Chief of Engineers.[55]

By comparison, the magnanimity of Obama despite only being a community organizer allowed him to quickly climb the social ranks from Harvard law to the highest office in the land. Is Obama the best at anything? Hardly. A major critcism during the 2008 campaign was his apparent lack of experience. But he’s good enough at many things, and is able to improvise and combine skillsets to be successful. This is similar to the concept of the ‘talent stack’ by Scott Adams, who self-admittedly is not an expert writer or illustrator, combined these skills into being a successful cartoonist.

Many of history’s ‘greats’ in the sciences (e.g. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison) were generalists. They dabbled in many things and advanced the frontiers of knowledge at most of them. Bertrand Russell was a renowned social scientist and logician. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was the consummate polymath who revolutionized fields as disparate as optics and literature, such as composing Faust, considered to be one of the greatest works of German literature. They also had a lot of leisure time, unlike today in which a lot time is spent procuring credentials and trying to get hired. Instead of declaring a major or area of expertise, like in college or as a career, they could work on whatever they saw fit.

But nowadays specialization is more important or even necessary for success, due to competition and increasingly high barriers to knowledge. This is related to the oft-repeated question kept alive by blogs and other online discussion, “Why has society stopped making Einsteins?” I posit this is because the low-hanging fruit has mostly been picked, so specialization and collaboration are necessary to find what morsels or nuggets remain to advance, however small, the frontier of knowledge. Same for increasing age of Nobel Prize recipients and famous discoveries: finding anything new requires having to assimilate a huge and growing body of prior art, which is time-consuming. The lone genius or generalist-dabbler hardly stands a chance when every stone has been overturned.

Centuries or millennia ago it was like, “I sat in a tub and the water level rose! Let me document this!” “Congratulations, you discovered displacement! Here is your permanent place in scientific history!” Or “I stuck a pencil in a glass of water and it looks like the pencil is broken.” “Congratulations, you discovered optical refraction…your prize awaits!” Someone aspiring to follow in the footsteps of Newton has to learn over 200-year’s worth of math and physics–from the ‘macro’ like general relativity, to the ‘micro’ like quantum theory. And also, statistical methods to interpret results, in addition to requiring advanced and complicated experiments and instruments which cost billions of dollars and many years to build. By comparison in Newton’s era physics was still mostly limited to dropping objects from buildings.

[0] But as Matt Yglesias notes, elites are not that much better in this regard either.