Specialize. Don’t Be a Specialist

It’s a trap! — Admiral Ackbar

We all have a tendency to overspecialize. It’s comfortable. It’s easy. It’s safe.

If we stick to what we know, we can never be wrong, never be corrected, and never be embarrassed. We’re an expert there. Nobody can challenge us if we’re a specialist.

In the words of the Mon Calamari Ackbar, “It’s a trap!”

I’m guilty of this thought process myself. When I first started out, I was determined that I would be a writer, and only a writer. I didn’t want to mess around with visual design, videography, or photography. I hadn’t even heard of UX design or learned that I had a mind for information architecture. I just wanted to be a writing specialist. To pigeonhole myself further, I wanted to only be a journalist. Even though the pay was low and the hours were long, it was a safe spot. I understood it, and I didn’t have to worry about taking a wrong step.

The thing is, journalism naturally pushes you to be more of a generalist. Before you interview someone, you need to become as much of an expert in their business as possible. Becasue of the wide range of news beats I covered, I had to become an expert in harbor dredging regulations, dewatering processes, and the national economy. I needed to be an expert interviewer, knowing when to push a line of questioning and when to back off. I needed to know a host of other skills that were vital to being a good reporter.

I was pushed—time and time again—outside my comfort zone, and I became a better writer as a result.

I inadvertently discovered that being hyper-specialized actually makes you worse at the skill that you are focusing on. If you put on blinders and only focus on one thing that you want to be an expert in, you lose all perspective.

You wind up with creative tunnel vision.

The worst case scenario is what happens to PhD candidates every year. They hyper specialize themselves in some area of literature or philosophy or history or science, and by the time they get out of graduate school, they’re obsolete, or extraneous. The world only needs so many Shakespearean scholars. Overspecialization is self-immolation.

Luckily, I saw the benefits of being dragged, kicking and screaming, out of my comfort zone through journalism. When I transitioned to being a copywriter at a design agency, I decided that I would volunteer to go outside my comfort zone instead of resisting.

I was pushed — time and time again — outside my comfort zone, and I became a better writer as a result.

I totally threw myself into the fray. I got involved in early creative concept discussions. I jumped into the details of layouts, color choice, illustration. I read article after article about typography, print design, UX design, IA, web design. I started listening to podcasts about front-end development and design thinking. I bought books about the design greats, monographs by Michael Bierut and Jessica Hische, how-to guides for subdisciplines of design.

At first, I’m certain I pissed off the designers, art directors, and my creative director. I probably would have been pissed off too. I mean, who the hell does this copywriter think he is, having opinions about how we structure print materials or how we develop a layout?

However, I noticed two things happening after a while. First, people began tolerating, then appreciating what I had to say. Second, my writing got phenomenally better.

It seemed like, for the designers, this was the first time someone from the copy department actually gave a shit about what they were doing. Instead of just telling them to make the layout fit the copy, shrink the images, or just make the fucking thing work, here was someone who was interested and engaged in what they were doing, and was willing to make compromises because they knew what the designers were dealing with.

My writing got better because I understood the constraints of the layout better. I knew how to write to what my designers had to work with. I wrote tighter, punchier, and with the design, not against it or in spite of it.

Overspecialization is self-immolation.

Beyond the benefits to my writing, I broadened my skillset. I learned how to think visually. I became adept at looking at vast sums of information and organizing them in an architectural framework that not only made sense, but was easy to work with on a database side. I even started taking on small, idiot-proof design projects in my spare time. It got to the point that my favorite projects at work often had less to do with strict copy work and more art direction, IA, and general design work.

This whole process taught me that pushing yourself professionally, getting uncomfortable—or even downright scared—is great! It’s what fuels growth.

So why do people, myself included, accept this fact about working out, trying new foods, or traveling, but refuse to believe it when it comes to our professional growth? Why do we dig our heels in when it comes to getting outside our comfort zone at work?

I’m sure part of it is that we don’t want to rock the boat at work, lest we get in trouble or fired. We all like to eat.

But that’s no excuse. Getting better, being at the top of your game is a result of hard work and training, training that pushes you outside your comfort zone, training that challenges you to be better.

Get out there. Try something new. Try something you’re bad at.

Let’s get uncomfortable.

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