Specialization is For Insects

Specialisation is for insects - Elon Musk's Roadster cruises through space


“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


If only Robert Heinlein was still above ground. If anyone would have appreciated Elon Musk’s cherry-red convertible cruising through the solar system, it’s got to be him. Heinlein’s sci-fi stories crackle with the frontier spirit of self-reliance and competence – the sort of unbridled moxie you need in spades if, say, you intend to start a colony on Mars.

The exponential trajectory of Musk’s career is a symbol of something deeply exciting to me: the Renaissance Man is on the up and up! Musk has personally rocked the worlds of finance, energy, transport, and space. He taught himself rocket science by reading textbooks. He has five kids. He is a masterful self-promoter. He’s hands-on with design, engineering, strategy, marketing. He’s the real-life Ironman, and exactly the sort of superhero we need.

Elon Musk’s rising star puts the lie to the tired old cliche; ‘jack of all trades, master of none’.

In this post, I want to make the case that cultivating broad interests and skills not only dovetails perfectly with the frugal life, but acts as a sort of force multiplier – a booster rocket that can propel you towards your money goals at blistering speed. We’ll start off on solid ground with the most tangible benefits, then rise through the higher levels of abstractions, pick off a few gremlins along the way, and hopefully end up making it back down to Earth safely.

The competent man

Perhaps Robert Heinlein should have been a New Zealander. As the legend goes, a true-blue Kiwi can fix anything using only a piece of number eight fencing wire and sheer resourcefulness; sort of like a low-budget rural version of MacGyver in which our hero must solve ‘the missing sheep mystery’ or ‘the case of the tractor’s loose spark plug’.

While this pioneering resourcefulness has mostly faded to a fond memory in our cultural consciousness, it does live on in a fringe of farmers and bodgers and old-timers. I should know, because my dad is one of them.

He built the house I grew up in, despite not being a builder. He can fix just about anything, butcher and dress out an animal, propagate a plant, program a website, swing a sledgehammer, cook a decent feed, or change a nappy – not to mention work his regular day job and help raise a tribe of five children.

People like my dad radiate a sort of force-field of competence that is extremely comforting in some indescribable way. I can only imagine that this ability to bend life to your will must feel pretty great. More pragmatically, it’s also going to save you an incredible sum of money.

Get off my lawn, kids these days, etc
“Take these three items right here. You can have this. WD-40, vise grips, and some duct tape. Any man worth his salt can do half the household chores with just those three things.”

‘Do it yourself’ is a recurring theme in my weekly Budget Buster column; whether it be learning how to maintain your own bike, do your own taxes, figure out asset allocation, cook tasty meals, cut people’s hair, shift house yourself, brew beer, grow vegetables, etc (there’s a collection of 100+ columns here, organised by topic).

It can take a while for this strategy to pay off, in strict dollar terms. A simple bike repair could take hours for a beginner to figure out; the first batch of homebrew usually tastes like yeasty mud. At some point, you’ll get frustrated as all hell, have to start from scratch, and wish you’d called in the professionals. But the next time you come to do it, you’ll have learned. You’ll be faster. You’ll pick up better tools.

You’ll also learn your own limits. For example, if you have complicated tax affairs, a good accountant will save you far more than their fee. My dad didn’t try to build a house the first time he picked up a hammer. He’s wise enough to know his limits, and has therefore managed not to blow himself up, get arrested, or chop any appendages off (at the time of writing). When he’s out of his depth, he calls in the pros… but he watches them carefully, and works alongside them where possible, and asks the occasional question, and next time, maybe he won’t need to make that call.

The art of the side-hustle

At first, you ‘pay’ yourself to do things you would have otherwise had to outsource. Once you get some sweet skills, other people will want to start paying you too. Congratulations! You now have a ‘side-hustle’ – that is, a micro-business for converting spare time into money.

Draw up an inventory of all your skills and assets. Perhaps you have a spare room you can rent out on Airbnb, a late-model car to moonlight for Uber, or an orchard full of fruit to preserve and sell. If you only have free time, that’s fine, because it’s the most important asset of all.

Next, brainstorm your skills and interests, and see where it leads you:

  • If you’re a keen photographer with a decent camera, you could start shooting events on the weekend, and build up a portfolio and some references.
  • If you’re a musician, you could teach kids, busk, or get a band together and start gigging for beers and pocket money.
  • Computer whiz? Your options range from helping old folks figure out the complexities of using a word processor all the way through to web design or development.
  • Generally brainy? Private tutoring for high school or university students pays well, and it’s easy to line up a few hours a week.

There are literally thousands of side-hustles out there, and the ‘gig economy’ will only expand as the world gets more fragmented. Busy people are outsourcing everything from lawn-mowing to shopping to answering email, which creates all sorts of juicy opportunities for part-time entrepreneurs.

A brief note on specialists

Specialisation is for insects
“Yeah no worries mate, this thing practically flies itself!”

I am really, really glad that the doctor who performed a recent colonoscopy wasn’t a keen amateur who happens to enjoys dabbling with the lower intestine in his spare time. While watching a guided tour of the inside of my own gut on the monitor, teeth clenched, I’m praying that he’s the best goddamn gastroenterologist in the world.

In the same spirit, I want my pilot to be really, really, really good at flying planes, even if that means she doesn’t have time to maintain her own lawn or take a pottery class.

Some people should certainly be more single-minded than others. This is a trade-off that’s specific to your own career and talents (if you’re on the brink of curing cancer, maybe don’t worry about learning jazz flute for now).

For most of us, this is a false dichotomy: We can be masters of our main trade, and still pursue other interests on the side. Even in the most extreme case, there’s always a tipping point where the 17th consecutive hour of studying cancer cells actually does more harm than good, and would have been better spent doing something frivolous.

Take Derek Parfit, who was perhaps the greatest moral philosopher of our time. He streamlined his entire life so that he could devote every waking moment to his work; eating the exact same spartan meals every day and drinking instant coffee with water from the tap rather than waste an extra minute fiddling around with a french press.

Humanity should be enormously grateful that Parfit didn’t devote any time to learning flower arrangement. But, tellingly, he still understood the benefit of developing one particular other domain – in his last decade of life, he took an hour every evening to furiously pedal away on a stationary bike. I think we should follow his lead…

In defence of gym bunnies and muscleheads

Vitruvian man

“No citizen has a right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training…what a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”

— Socrates

There is no neat separation between mind and body; no homunculus perched in your head that is the real ‘you’. It’s all one big sloppy mess of interconnected feedback loops, as hopelessly tangled as the web of string connecting the points on a conspiracy theorist’s bulletin board. Your gut has as many neurons in it as a cat’s brain. Your hormones and moods are affected by your bodyfat and muscles and cardiovascular activity, and vice versa. And so, to keep your mind in optimal condition, you have to cultivate your body too. This common sense knowledge well and truly predates the Renaissance, even though no-one back then had fancy machines for counting the neurons in cat’s brains, but it seems to have fallen out of favour.

The stereotype of someone who cultivates their physical potential is that they are vain and stupid. This is sometimes the case, but I wouldn’t be surprised if fitness enthusiasts were more successful and thoughtful than the general population, on average.

Having trained around a lot of competitive recreational and semi-pro athletes, I’ve noticed they seem to be uncommonly smart, driven, and skilled. They often had impressive jobs, good family lives, and generally had their act together. Have a look at this photo, and take note of your reaction:

Colm Woulfe, Worlds Strongest Man competitor
A 400lb musclehead who looks like he’d eat you alive (for a light snack, that is).

This is my friend Colm Woulfe. I got to know him when he worked at my university’s fitness centre, and was conscripted as one of the test subjects for his Master’s thesis. He’s quite literally one of the strongest men in the world, and also programs and coaches his own athletes.

Even after getting to know people like Colm, I tend to make the mistake of assuming buff movie stars and fitness models are brainless bimbos – until I find out the slightest bit of actual information about them. Arnold Schwarzenegger might seem like a big robotic dum-dum, but he deliberately encouraged that impression so people would underestimate him. We’re talking about a guy who grew up in a poor village with an alcoholic, violent father, became a self-made millionaire as a recent migrant, then went on to achieve at the highest levels in bodybuilding, movies and politics.

How about Dolph Lundgren (Ivan Drago from Rocky IV, star of 40+ action films)? Well, he speaks six languages, is a chemical engineer, Fulbright scholar, and also composed the greatest tweet of all time in the wake of Trump’s election:

 

Terry Crews, not content with being an NFL player, bodybuilder, actor, comedian, and one of the most pure and wholesome humans on Earth, is an incredible artist. Oliver Sacks, one of my favourite scientists, penned beautiful essays on mortality, neurology and music, while also being a record-breaking powerlifting monster nicknamed “Dr Squat”. Alan Turing was a good enough distance runner to be an Olympics contender; Marie Curie was an avid cyclist; the list goes on.

Derek Parfit was probably onto something with his stationary bike routine. You can get by without developing some of the other domains – music, language, the arts – but the physical dimension is not negotiable.

Perfect is the enemy of good

“Epictetus will not be better than Socrates, but if I am not worse, that is enough for me. I shall never be a Milo, and yet I do not neglect my body, nor a Croesus, and yet I do not neglect my property: nor, in general, do we cease to take pains in any area, because we despair of arriving at the highest degree of perfection.”

— Epictetus

To update Epictetus for the modern age: I will never have the hypnotic dancing pecs of Terry Crews, I cannot change the world like Elon Musk, and I might struggle to top Marie Curie’s achievement of winning the Nobel prize twice, in two different sciences. In fact, I couldn’t begin to hold a candle to any of these great men and women – but that’s no reason to stop me from trying.

I’ve invoked this pantheon of demigods simply because they’re familiar reference points, and they show us what is possible. Of course, there are some hard limits: Repeat a million affirmations, read all the self-help books in the library – there’s still no way you’re going to earn a chemical engineering PhD with an IQ below room temperature, or become an NFL offensive lineman if you’re 5’6 and have to run around in the shower to get wet.

The good news is that skill acquisition is a general principle, which means it scales all the way down to us lesser mortals. Arguably, there’s an even more compelling case for generalism for average Joes and Janes. Without certain genetic blessings, it’s impossible to be at the very cutting edge of most specialised fields. But if you find a way to blend  your moderately good skills together, you can excel in an entirely new niche of your own making…

Introducing the talent stack

Dilbert creator Scott Adams coined the 'talent stack'

“If you think extraordinary talent and a maniacal pursuit of excellence are necessary for success, I say that’s just one approach, and probably the hardest. When it comes to skills, quantity often beats quality.”

— Scott Adams

‘Talent stack’ was coined by Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, to explain how he came to be “a rich and famous cartoonist who doesn’t draw well”. By his own admission, his artistic skills are middling, and at social gatherings, he’s not the funniest person in the room. What he did have was a several years of experience as an office worker, an MBA, an early interest in Internet culture, and a decent sense of humour:

My combined mediocre skills are worth far more than the sum of the parts.

The number of cartoonists in the centre of this highly unlikely Venn diagram was exactly one, and his name was Scott Adams. Since there are an infinite number of permutations of talents, anyone who cultivates broad interests can fuse them together into a unique package. Lots of scientific breakthroughs have been made at the intersection of seemingly unrelated fields, as have countless new business ideas and innovations.

Building a talent stack doesn’t have to be meticulously planned in advance. Simply by taking an interest in the world and acquiring new skills wherever possible, they seem to combine in strange and unpredictable ways down the track. Let serendipity do the work for you.

The rewards will not always be obvious or tangible. I doubt Derek Parfit faithfully pedaled his way to the Repugnant Conclusion, but it sure didn’t hurt. I know some of my own hobbies will never ‘pay off’ directly. For example, I doubt there’s much of a market for amateur guitarists who can never quite get through a song without hitting bum notes and forgetting at least one chord.

On the other hand, playing music is good for the mind. It has helped me with maths. It has expanded the range and resonance of my writing (see what I did there). It meant I understood a whopping 5 per cent of Gödel Escher Bach, instead of 4 per cent. Probably I’ve bonded with people who I otherwise wouldn’t have. Perhaps the wiring and plasticity of my brain has improved in a small but significant way. And, of course, it’s really fun.

In my own field of writing, the most fundamental mistake aspiring wordsmiths make is not having many other skills and hobbies. You cannot make new and exciting ideas out of whole cloth. If you want to be interesting, be interested.

Crunching the numbers

The mathematical argument in favour of being a generalist might be the most beautiful and compelling of all, which is why I’ve saved it til last. You’ve probably heard of the Pareto Principle or ‘80/20 rule’, which states that 20 per cent of your efforts tend to drive 80 per cent of the results. I have learned this the hard way:

Power law distributions in everything
An example of the power law distribution on this very blog, where ~20 per cent of posts drive ~80 per cent of all page views.

Using this principle, people like Tim Ferriss have elevated accelerated learning to an artform. For example, learning a handful of guitar chords in the I–IV–V progression of each key immediately unlocks tens of thousands of songs. When studying a second language, focusing on a small group of keystone words and grammar rules get you to ‘conversational’ very quickly. Beginners at the gym are able to make huge gains in strength and muscle mass in a very short period of time.

After you max out that initial 20 per cent of noob gains, you start to run into the law of diminishing returns. The further along the curve you push, the less reward you get in return. Adding a few pounds to an elite powerlifter’s total might take an entire training cycle, while a beginner could accomplish the same thing in the space of one workout.

If you follow these efficient learning pathways, you only have to invest 20 per cent of your effort into any given field to reap most of the available rewards. Here’s the end result:

Specialist: Masters one skill to 100 per cent proficiency

Generalist: Learns five skills to 80 per cent proficiency

Let’s say the specialist is a really great accountant, but has no other skills. Meanwhile, the generalist is a pretty good accountant, a savvy marketer, good at writing, an amateur rower, and reads philosophy on weekends. Which would you rather be?

I made this example up in five seconds; you can fill in the blanks yourself. The point is that the skills in a talent stack don’t just ‘add’ value; they have the potential to multiply value. When that happens, the whole becomes worth much more than the sum of its parts.

Jack of all trades, master of some?

As mentioned earlier, the above scenario is a bit of a false dichotomy. It’s based on the assumption that diversifying skills comes at the cost of your ‘main’ career, and eats into the time you might spend becoming an accounting wizard. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

Instead of diverting time and effort away from your main pursuit, divert it away from passive leisure time instead.

If you’re like most people, there’s a massive goldmine of opportunity here. TV and social media consume vast swathes of our lives, and are harmful in all sorts of insidious ways, as I’ve ranted about previously in Throw Away Your Television. I won’t get on my soapbox again, except to reiterate one particularly interesting statistic: Over the course of a lifetime, the average person indulges in something like 100,000 hours of TV viewing. If you repurpose even a fraction of that time towards active recreation and learning, the possibilities are mind-boggling.

You could become an accomplished pianist, a chess Grandmaster, a competitive tennis player, proficient in a second language, a chef, a published author, a carpenter, a programming whizz, a dedicated parent or family member, and a respected community leader – and do it all in the space of one lifetime.

Or… you could watch a whole lot of TV.

The remembering self

Forget everything you’ve just read. Take money and success and health right out of the picture. If the only thing that mattered was maximising your own pleasure, how would you choose to spend your leisure time?

Watching Netflix is really fun. Facebook is somewhat fun. These sort of activities are easy, and passive. They’re carefully designed for instant gratification, and to light up your brain with constant little hits of pleasure.

Active leisure and learning can be pleasurable in the moment too – the rush of endorphins of a runner’s high, the sheer joy of curling up with a fascinating book, surfing the trance-like ‘flow’ state right in the sweet spot between boredom and anxiety.

Other times, they’re painful, and jarring, and frustrating. They’re hard work. And yet the science is conclusive here: Active leisure and learning generate far more happiness than passive pleasures – and this is the truly remarkable thing – even if we don’t enjoy them in the moment.

As it turns out, there’s a massive gulf between what psychologists call the ‘experiencing self’, and the ‘remembering self’.

We don’t remember how we felt in the moment – blistered fingertips, covered in grease in the belly of the engine, cursing and cramped, lungs heaving – but we sure do remember the sense of achievement in standing back with a beer and surveying our handiwork; of creating something new that didn’t exist in the world, of finally pulling off that tricky chord progression, of crossing the marathon finish line and collapsing into the proud arms of our supporters. Personally, those are the kind of moments I live for.

Jack of all trades, master of none. It’s a backhanded compliment at best, and usually employed by snobs to dismiss the efforts of enthusiastic amateurs. I was surprised to discover recently that there’s another ending to this aphorism – a line which somehow dropped off in the passage of time, and which changes the meaning in a delightful way:

“Jack of all trades, master of none… but oftentimes better than a master of one.”

Who knew? I think it’s about time to claim back ‘jack of all trades’ as a great accolade. I, for one, would be honoured to receive it.

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6 Comments on "Specialization is For Insects"

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Hussein
Hussein

Amazing article Richard! I have always viewed myself as a generalist (I am a software developer) and due to my interests in other domains (which takes time from my main career) felt as if I am no good or expert in what I do and that I am doing something wrong. This article has opened my sights into a new vision in which a person can achieve a lot by being a generalist. This is something that can be invested. Thank you 🙂

Dave

Great post. Jobs have become overly specialized. While it is important to have specialists, it is also good to have generalists. I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine who is a CPA. I came to him with a tax question. He told me that he does not know much about taxes because he specialized in auditing. He said the big 8 accounting firm keeps the tax guys and the auditors separated.

Aisling
Aisling

Thanks so much for this article Richard. It is great to get a reminder that you don’t need to just focus on one thing but can always learn new skills.

This is true at any age – i started playing the cello 2 yrs ago at 49 – having never played an instrument before – i will never be a virtuoso but i get a lot of enjoyment from it. It is a good counterpoint to my day job in IT.

I need to get better at DIY and exercise….

I did find your example of the dr and the jazz flute amusing and not just for the image it conjoured up in your example – I totally understand your point 🙂 but since taking up an instrument i have met many medical Drs who are also musicians – with music degrees as well as medical ones. They even have an orchestra
http://www.nzdo.org.nz/NZDO/Welcome.html
I find many intelligent people are polymaths.

Russell Critchley
Russell Critchley

Richard you have a talent! Thankyou.