Don’t do it! Over-specialization is a perfect way to entrap yourself in one skill. It’s simply not a good idea for both career and practical reasons. If you’re only good at one thing, you’ll never have back up plans, you’ll never be able to analogize properly, and you’ll never be able to synergize other skills.
What is Over-specialization?
Over-specialization is when a person focuses all their effort onto one or a small set of related skills in such a way that other skills atrophy or never develop. Usually this is associated with the delusion that ultra-mastery is what it takes to make it big (we’ll get to that).
Mastery of a skill is not hard to do. It’s just a matter of being able to do something properly and dependably. Ultra-Mastery is a situation like mastery, except that an Ultra-Master is exceptionally talented in that area.
For example, if a person is really into programming and spends a majority of their time programming while neglecting differently-tooled skills such as writing, speaking, philosophy, mechanics, engineering, etc. or even neglecting similarly-tooled skills such as cybersecurity, system’s administration, network administration, application deployment, etc., they are over-specialized.
The Over-specialized are without backup plans
Our over-specialized programmer here is totally without a backup plan. He cannot shift roles in the computer-related industry and can he shift his way out of the computer-related industry. If programming goes under in his region, let’s say by an over-saturation of programmers, he is utterly screwed.
In fields already saturated, the chance of decent success is quite low. If masters and ultra-masters of a field are cheap, the value of going into that field is incredibly low (job wise).
The only time over-specialization is worthwhile is when there is a drought of people in a specific, hyper-specialized area. However, attempting to capitalize on this is incredibly time sensitive as holes in the market like this usually find themselves fixed quickly once word gets around that people are paying highly for a select position.
Over-Specializers are stunted for knowledge and are bad at analogizing
Almost every idea that isn’t innate or logical is derivative upon past knowledge. It’s a melding of two or more separate ideas into something unique enough to not be backtracked to what it originated from. Because of this, prior knowledge is absolutely key in synthesizing anything unique. Different skills and how they operate imply not just a vast array of concepts that someone can mix and meld with others, but entire different methodologies for thinking that can be applied in niche cases to enhance a craft.
For example, our over-specialized programmer here has no knowledge of biology. Another programmer, let’s name him “Chad”, is both a good programmer, not as good as the over-specialized one, but has some knowledge of biology. Both programmers are presented with a problem in a game: they need enemies to be dynamic, tailored towards the world, and unique.
The first programmer can come up with his own solution, likely involving many variables and random number generators, and algorithms that he arbitrarily came up with himself. They may be good, they may be bad, it’ll take time to know. However, Chad has simply borrowed what he knew from biology: evolution, and applied it to this situation to create an evolutionary algorithm. Since we know evolution is capable of all three things requested by the game developers, we are sure that Chad’s solution is to fit the bill.
That’s just one example of analogizing. No one can know everything, but having a good sense of most things will let you hack together disparate ideas into something cohesive and useful. Those without a wide knowledge base to choose from are incapable of doing this.
Lack of Synergization
This is probably the most important thing that someone who over-specializes misses out on: they lack the ability to synergize their skills into a skill set that is more useful than its component parts. The over-specialized programmer, while good at programming admittedly, is incredibly weak compared to a good programmer with skills in writing and systems administration due to how the latter can optimize his workflow.
Our over-specialized programmer is a Juggernaut and there is no denying that, but his code is incomprehensible to most and lacks documentation, therefore making it worthless. He has no sense of system administration to make this tools deployable and integrate well with a system. His work is effectively deemed worthless due to his lack of abilities in other areas.
But let’s just pivot a bit to another type of overspecialization: Accounting. An accountant who over-specializes in knowing how to do accounting while knowing no programming cannot augment her job to the best of her ability. This is especially the case if this accountant is using a computer to do the accounting. While yes the accountant is talented, the accountant is over all less productive than an inferior, but programming knowledgeable accountant, who can augment her job.
This lack of synergization breeds high amounts of inefficiency among the most talented. A programmer who can’t write and can’t deploy is not going to be as successful as one who can. An accountant who can’t program is at a disadvantage by having less throughput than an accountant who can. An IT guy without social skills is totally incapable of communicating what is necessary to do to those he supports.
The synergization problem isn’t one that can even be understood by the over-specialized as they are used to their workflow and have attributed inefficiencies as efficiencies when getting to the end goal and, with their limited knowledge, they’re not wrong to make that assessment, however, if they had more knowledge, they’d be much more capable of doing their job properly.
Uniqueness is better than Ultra-Mastery
The line of thought that the Ultra-masterful are the successful ones, in my opinion, comes from the sensationalization of the highly talented. However, generally speaking, most people are not Ultra-Masters and make do just fine with their craft. They don’t pursue being the best, they pursue being good at their job. Over-specialization and ultra-mastery, while sometimes worth it, don’t really compare to the general utility of being unique.
Being unique is just a matter of having a skill set that other’s don’t that is very tantalizing. A silver-tongued, articulate-in-writing programmer can translate even the most technical of jargon into workable text for non-savants. An accountant who can program is infinitely faster at her job due the ability to automate her own skills. A mechanic with good business sense has a good chance of starting his own repair shop and having it work. Non-unique skill sets, while they can be very good in their own right, are incapable of using their own skills to their advantage in ways that the uniquely skilled can.
A warning about “dabblers”
This whole article has consisted of advocacy for being a generalist with a couple areas of expertise, not dabbling in everything and being good at nothing. Being a master, or at least a talented hobbyist, of a couple fields is paramount to success with a non-specialized mode of operating. Simply touching something and putting it down while not having a couple of exceptional, or at least adequate, skills is an amazing way to lose time and gain nothing. Only after you’re somewhat talented at something you should really break off into other areas and become unique. This is so you don’t end up bouncing around skills with your last dabble atrophying away into nothing.
To conclude, don’t be a dabbler, don’t be over-specialized. Be good, be unique, and be useful. A varied skill set is important to survival as it both serves as a backup and a method to augment your other skills.