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Specialization is for insects

Insect

I saw the title of this post as a quotation on Brandon Hartshorn’s profile and it immediately struck a chord. The full quotation:

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.

(Robert Heinlein, ‘Time Enough For Love’, 1973)

A lot of this speaks to our desire, in an ever more interconnected world, to be self-sufficient, to be able to do lots of things ourselves.

What I’m interested in, however, is the implicit assumption of specialization in professional settings. Organisations put people in boxes and, instead of trying to climb out of them, too often people dig down. I’m sure there are exceptions, but in my experience, as you’re a ‘senior’ something (senior marketer, senior learning technologist) there’s a chance you’ve probably over-specialised at the expense of your career.

Job titles aside, the more senior you go, the more likely that those people can easily perform a range of jobs, if push comes to shove.


Others have used Heinlein’s pithy quotation about specialization as the basis for their own reflections. For example, Gary Herstein (whose name is close enough to Heinlein’s to make me double-take) wrote:

Here is a simple fact: if you cannot explain yourself to non-experts, than you cannot explain yourself at all. The reason why we all have a moral obligation – yes, you “hafta” – to explain ourselves to non-experts is because it is only in those sorts of explanations that we genuinely show that we do – or do not! (e.g., Stephen Hawking) – know what we are talking about. Few of us are granted the privilege and the bully-pulpit of an established publisher who will carry our ideas onto dead trees. (Another technical phrase.) But we can still go beyond just saying what needs to be said; we can show that we know what we’re saying by saying it to people who don’t already know that we know what we are saying.

Just today I had a conversation with the representative of an organisation we’re helping with some digital support. We were discussing the disconnect between charities and digital agencies, both of which can use specialist, technical language at times when it’s not necessary. Instead of jargon being used as a timesaver — for example, using a term instead of having to speak in paragraphs — it becomes a barrier to understanding.

In general, and again in my experience, people confident in themselves and in what they’re discussing don’t use buzzwords and unnecessary jargon. They know what they mean, and can discuss it both in literal and metaphorical terms. To be able to do so requires an understanding that approaches concepts from multiple angles, which you only get from wide reading and experience.

We don’t have to define ourselves by the job titles given to us by other people or in ways that make answering the questions of hypothetical dinner party guests easier (“So… what do you do?”) Human beings are complex and multi-faceted. In other words, we’re generalists.


Image by Yogesh Pedamkar

2 thoughts on “Specialization is for insects

  1. Thanks Doug. I really really enjoyed this post. In the museum world we have up to 40 roles, each of which 40yrs ago would be v specialist. Our problem is that with a drip by drip reduction in funding we both eventualy lose skills and not adapt our design to cope. Thus we are slowly sleep walking into trouble. The natural reaction is to insist we need more funding for the old ways of doing things instead of shedding our skin. I bang on a lot about T shaped skills being important. For me personally stepping away directly from my expertise in computing really paid off. Thanks for the early morning dose of inspiration.

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