Generalizing about Specialization

Specialization has made us all wealthy.  Cell phones, packaged meat, refrigeration…the dreams of kings!  All because of specialization.  Focusing on doing one thing very well and doing it repeatedly means I don’t have to do 50 things poorly.  I focus on doing what I do best and hire other specialists to manage the other things.  For example, I no longer turn wrenches on my own cars.  I hire a specialist.  Also, I am not my children’s dentist but I am my son’s barber.  By separating the duties of a roofer from those of a machinist from those of a cardiologist we end up with better roofing, more precise machining and a better chance of surviving when our lifelong assault on our heart becomes more than it can handle.  We are all better off because of specialists.

Generalization lends security.  What if I can’t get to a dentist?  What if I have to perform CPR on that stranger who wrecked his motorcycle on the road?  What if all the roofing companies are overbooked and nobody is available to put a roof on my house?  That’s when we rely broad knowledge and experience.

Everyone bridges the gap.  No person is 100% dedicated to their field.  The best cardiologist in the world is still a human the rest of the day.  She may also be a mother, a child, a volunteer or a welder by day and a dancer by night (she’s a maniac!)

I have to balance this out as well.  If I did nothing but my primary vocation from sunup to sundown I would make more money but I would be bored…and boring.  Well, more boring.  I really like what I do for a living.  It’s exciting, challenging and stimulating.  It is also air-conditioned and comes with a nice, cushy chair and a desk.  Though I don’t even get a cubicle to protect me from communicable diseases, I do have a desk of my very own. I am not the only specialist in my office.  The office is filled with specialists.  Each of us can create, fix, plan or manage our way to corporate profitability (though some get cubes!).

So far this hasn’t been a current events post about the farm but I’ll swing this back to the farm for you now.  I am a specialist in my career but my career does not define me.  I have traded away decades (yup, plural) of my life and a small fortune in training and books to gain the technical knowledge I possess.  Please understand, I take my job seriously.  I work hard to stay current on changes in technology.  That said, I am not my job.  The job is too small to describe me.  It’s just one thing I do.  I am not a specialist on the farm either.  Our speciality is pastured chicken but we also raise pigs, cows, turkeys, ready-to-lay pullets, mushrooms, garden vegetables, children, make tons and tons of compost, cut and manage our woodlot, and grow acres and acres of grass some of which we store in the barn for future use.  Each of these endeavors requires knowledge, practice, education and experience.  Because we do so many things I can only go so deeply into each one.  Why do I stop at 1200 broilers each year?  Because I am a generalist.  That’s all I can handle given our time constraints…for now anyway.  But the same equipment we use to raise broilers allows us to raise pullets for ourselves and for sale.  In fact, our fencing and chicken tractors can be used for pigs as well.  Not only am I a generalist, I try to utilize multi-purpose, non-specialized equipment.

I can set up, design and maintain your SQL Server database.  I can raise, kill and process chickens, turkeys, rabbits, ducks and pigs.  I am, over time, becoming a gardening and canning fool.  I can shingle a roof with the best of them.  I have flipped burgers, watered plants, mowed grass, designed landscaping, framed houses and traveled the length and breadth of North America (and Puerto Rico) training truck mechanics how to use software.  I have changed tires on everything from cars to semi-trailers to tractors.  I have changed diapers.  But I am not rich.  Were I to give up all this generalist nonsense and focus on my career I might be closer to “rich” but I do feel secure knowing we’ll eat well.

Forgive me if the world is less wealthy because I refuse to specialize.  I’m just having too much fun.  Besides, Heinlien said:

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

3 thoughts on “Generalizing about Specialization

  1. Ha – I was going to use that very quote one of these days! I think take orders and die gallantly might be the hardest ones to actually do – though I haven’t yet butchered a hog…

    I think you’re making a great point here about the generalist/specialist thing. The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.

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