As a specialist your job security is vulnerable to market forces and technological progress. The next big innovation will make it possible for a less skilled person to perform the same tasks as you do now. When this happens you’ll be given a choice between a pay cut or the door. If you choose the pay cut, you’ll be likely be working with (or for) people who have less skill in your area than you do.
In order to avoid this fate, you must know both the dangers of overspecialization as well as the guidelines for surviving in a world where the advantages of being a specialist are becoming increasingly less apparent.
The Dangers of Overspecialization
There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a specialist, but you should be aware of the potential pitfalls of overspecialization:
- The Law of Diminishing Returns
- A Dead-End Career
The Law of Diminishing Returns
The amount of time you spend developing your skills is rarely proportionate to the benefits you receive from those skills. When developing your expertise in an area, it’s important to be aware of the Law of Diminishing Returns. The lion share of the benefit you get from learning something new will most likely come from the first year or two of study. After that, the benefits become much less apparent.
Take the Japanese language for example. Although there might be more than 50,000+ characters in a modern Japanese dictionary, most native speakers learn only about 2,000 of them. In fact, most foreign visitors to Japan can learn just 500 characters and will never have a problem reading menus, ingredients on food labels, signs in the subway station and even some comic books. Unless you want to go to law school in a Japanese university or read obscure Japanese novels in the original language, there isn’t much sense to learning more than those 500 most common characters. After a certain point, you have to exert a tremendous amount of effort just to gain another level of proficiency. Before you decide to do so, you better make damn sure that it’s worth your time.
When it comes to learning languages, most are content to learn just enough to communicate comfortably with native speakers. Spending years learning all that you can possibly learn about a language isn’t an efficient use of most people’s time. When it comes to job skills however, it’s surprising how many people lose sight of this bit of common sense.
A high level of skill may be something to strive for if you’re a professional artist or performer, but if you’re a web developer or a bond market analyst chances are that the only ones who’ll be able to recognize your level of expertise are a handful of people, and certainly not those who pay your salary.
Before you devote time to develop your skills past a basic level of competency, ask yourself your real motivations for doing so. Are you doing it so that you can think of yourself as a “bigger expert” than your peers, or are you doing it to increase your ability to contribute value to others? If your thirst for knowledge is motivated by personal pride rather than a desire to make a contribution, it’s likely that you’re spending more time developing your skills than you need to. If that’s the case, consider rethinking your priorities and widening your focus a bit.
A Dead-End Career
Although HR recruiting managers are always looking for specialists, for some reason there are very few specialists who make it to top management positions. In fact, most corporate professionals at the VP level and above have generalist resumes. The reason these people are chosen for the top jobs are not only due to their leadership skills, but because their generalist background gives them a more holistic vision about how business works. They’re able to see the big picture and take all angles into consideration before making a decision.
Furthermore, if you specialize in one area too much, chances are you’ll become too valuable to your company as a staff member to be promoted to management level. Your skills, in essence, will become your cage. In my years as a headhunter I’ve met plenty of specialists who’ve become trapped in the same job for 10 or even 20 years. Because their skills are so valuable at a certain level, promoting them would be out of the question.
Surviving as a Specialist
To avert the potential dangers of overspecialization, consider the following survival tips:
- Develop your “Inner Resume”
- Widen your focus
- Ask yourself why you’ve decided to specialize
Develop your “Inner Resume”
Don’t limit your focus to developing marketable job skills. Make sure that you develop your “inner resume” as well. Take time to develop qualities of leadership, creativity, charisma, and integrity. Although developing these qualities don’t have an immediate impact on your career, the cumulative effect over time can be extraordinary.
Widen your focus
Develop skills in other disciplines and see how the insights you gain from learning something in a completely different field can be applied to your area of specialization. Oftentimes ideas which are old hat in one area can be the inspiration behind incredible breakthroughs in others.
Leonardo Da Vinci, for example, took advantage of his knowledge of human anatomy to paint portraits that were incredibly realistic. Indeed, many of history’s polymaths, the geniuses who were able to achieve breakthroughs in several very different fields, did so because they were able to see the connections between those fields. If you’re an expert at what you do, and you encounter a problem that you can’t solve, perhaps the answer lies not studying the obscure minutiae of your own field, but in trying your hand at something completely different.
Ask yourself why you’ve decided to specialize
Some people decide to specialize simply for the joy that comes from delving deeper and deeper into a particular area of expertise. If that’s your reason for being a specialist, then by all means, continue. If you’re specializing simply to get a better job, or because you want to make sure that you’re the best expert among experts, then it might be a good idea to reassess your priorities. You shouldn’t become a specialist just for the sake of becoming a specialist. Don’t pursue expertise. Instead, devote yourself singlemindedly to whatever ignites your passion. If you do this, expertise will naturally ensue.
What about you? How has your level of expertise (or lack thereof) helped or hindered you in your career? Any other tips for succeeding as a specialist? Please feel free to leave a comment!
Stay tuned for Part III of this series: How To Thrive as a Generalist. You can subscribe to this blog so that you can read it as soon as I publish it. Till then!
Photo by: IK’s World Trip