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.