Tuesday, April 22, 2014


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 A. Heinlein

I like this quote. I might actually like it too much. In fact, I know I like it too much, when you consider that I disagree with it.

Specialization is the absolute homie. Specialization is how, as society, we advance. Through obsession. Through spending, sometimes, unhealthy amounts of time on single things. Specialization is what happens when you have a massive number of people and the infrastructure to ensure that one person’s ability can be transferred into output that benefits a large number of people. You have the opportunity to become insanely good at things, because you don't have to spend your time doing other stuff.

And of course this further gets enhanced through the implementation of technology. One of its primary purposes is drastically multiplying effort into a greater output. This saves time. If one person farms and feeds thousands of people, then we can afford to have just a few farmers who get very good at what they do. Because other specialists will find a way to amplify their own outputs and get stuff done for you as well

So now we don’t all have to farm our own food, make our own clothes, build our own houses and mend our own fences. Other people, people much better at it than us, can do it for us. With technology, they can do it for almost everybody. That's how you end up with a large civilization: specialists.

It may benefit me to know how to sew, sure. But that does not mean that, given my limited amount of time, I should make all my own clothes. A specialist (particularly one armed with talent and technology suited to the specialty) is able to make more clothes better and faster. They learn more, develop more. They can distill the knowledge better and then later when I get tired of writing blog posts and I do want to learn to sew, they even know the best way to teach me to save me the most time.

And so the case is made for specialization, and why you should focus on getting good at very specific things. When it comes down to it, if there is something that only you (or you and a very tiny number of people) can or want to be amazing at, then you probably should go for it. It will take time and obsession to push it to the levels that astonish, amaze, and advance us. Spend that time, share the results with others.

Having said that….I have a personal problem here, which is that I genuinely believe I have the capacity to get good at just about anything (except basketball). I do like the Heinlein quote. I want to be good at everything and understand everything and not just be a specialist. Sometimes I agonize over not being the best at things that I barely invest time into. I don't want to be a specialist in one thing, I want to master everything.

This is the thing though, the thing that I personally tend to forget. It actually isn’t that hard to develop a baseline competency in things. Even if you consider yourself a slow learner, most things are comprised of basics and avoiding major errors. Being okay enough at something, just okay enough to do it in a pinch is--if I had to guess--more what Heinlein is talking about. We don’t all need to be doctors, but without a doctor around you’d want to know the very basics of first aid. You won't always have doctors with you. Sometimes doctors get injured, for instance.

We don’t all need to be crazy genius mathematicians. Not all of us are going to expand the field of mathematics. In fact, many of the people that are amazing at math and really really love it (you know, in a way that worries other people) don’t even do it. Many people will spend a lot of time pursuing dead ends and wrong theories and making goofy mistakes. The more you pursue mastery of a thing, the more likely you will spend time doing crazy esoteric things that don't work. But just saying, "screw it, I won't learn how to do arithmetic," that's doing yourself a major disservice, for a bunch of reasons.

This is where the meaning of the quote should intersect with the benefits of specializing, and where I do think it’s worth it not to worship specialization too much. Being incapable of functioning independently of other specialists, being literally good at only one thing and incapable of other stuff is flawed. It’s true in the context of life and society, but it’s also true in the further-narrowed context of games and skills.

There’s nothing wrong with being a specialist, or acknowledging that other specialists will have abilities you don’t (or even can’t) have. But using that as an excuse to completely forego the training of a skill at all is a poor attitude. Again, this is particularly important when you (ironically) do want to specialize in something, because across the broad spectrum of sub-skills that make up the whole thing, you still want a given level of basic competency in everything. At the very least it needs to be enough to get by until you can play the game or pursue the skill in the realms you control.

Those are my thoughts for today. Thanks for reading.


  1. Good post.

    I like the Heinlein quote as a quote about human potential/capacity and as a reminder of the value of being strong enough to not need to specialise (which will make you a better specialist anyway). You can also interpret "able to" as covering "able to be able to":

    If I'm not able to do something right now, but if I need or decide to, able to learn the skills/shift my mindset to be able to, am I not able to do it in all the ways that matter?

    Pretty much. It doesn't cover your ability to be good at a lot of things at once or at short notice but if that mattered to me I wouldn't be a specialist (also, if I really wanted to, what's stopping me trying to specialise in generalism? There might be no way back, it might be a horrible idea, but if I can master other things I already know how to attune my mentality with what what I want to do. It's a different scale and type and deeper shift but it should be based on the same ability I know I have. Maybe that makes me an adaptionist, rather than a specialist. A lot of specialists don't adapt to what they do, they just find something they're naturally attuned to and stick to it.)

    Trying to be good at a lot of things at once can be a good way to expand your overall capacity. If you stretch yourself out in all directions you might expand more than if you expand in only one direction. Of course if it works, that capacity is still going to be diffuse and you're going to need to respecialise yourself.

    I think not having to spare any underling mental dedication is more important than not having to spare time. (though time is a resource that can be converted into dedication by spending it immersing yourself in what you're doing, and raw time spent is also important)

    As long as you don't change the underlying mentality your main ability depends on (past a point where you can't flip back and forth [that point might be 0]) learning something else won't hurt you. The basics of every field can be learned just through training and drilling but you're not necessarrilly limited to that.

    There are also a lot of generally non overlapping areas of dedication (past a certain point of obsessiveness everything warps around it but for anything below that). For instance what reflexes you want not just to be trained, but to be natural, depend on what fighting game/sport you're trying to be good at, but they don't necessarily have any effect on whether you also lean towards maths, writing, cooking, entertaining people, whatever.

    Also specialisation is far from the only thing that determines how good you are at things. It's not like we're all operating at full potential, and we can just choose to direct it wherever we please. It's possible for less specialisation to actually make someone better at the thing they are specialised in, if it gets your mind in gear in other ways more than it loses attunement (that might be regainable later.)

    But what is wrong with complete specialisation, if you can afford it?
    You don't need to unspecialise to learn basic skills, or at least you only need to temporarily.

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  3. When I say good post I mean I like the post, not I am the post judge guy with a wig and hammer. People always say good post so I said good post but I prefer not to assume people want potentially overbearing "affirmation" which is why I'm writing this.

  4. 2nd post is same as third. Thought I could edit it