In a society that is more and more resembling the functioning of a machine, being a specialist is considered a strength. In recent years, people have become obsessed over this 10,000 hour concept developed by pop psychologists like Malcolm Gladwell. It reductively states that people who achieve “mastery” typically “practice” their given skill for 10,000 hours. I loved Paul McCartney’s response, something like, “There were a lot of bands who practiced for 10,000 hours, and they didn’t become The Beatles.” Theories like Gladwell’s appeal to a culture that see every individual as equally integral to the machine’s functioning. All that this sense of equality relies on is a vague belief that everyone is capable of great things, even if said people never actually put in the work.
The problem with the cult of specialization is that it convinces people that their purpose is to serve one purpose. In most other epochs humans had to be somewhat specialized so that they could make a living from a specific trade and then pass that trade on to an apprentice or a progeny. Today, it’s more possible than ever to live an eclectic life. Most people do not need to mirror the functioning of the parts of a machine since the machine functions somewhat autonomously. You can use technology to do things that used to take an incredibly long time to do. You can be eclectic because you can streamline multiple ideas at once and gather fruit from multiple trees at once. It’s easier to do this today than ever before.
Similarly, when people obsess over specialization, they tend to gravitate towards specific fields of specialization that yield the highest societal and monetary rewards regardless of their natural proclivity for that realm. Individuals believe that they are just as suited for specialization A as specialization B, because A is more lucrative. We can’t acknowledge the uniqueness of each human being on the Earth without also acknowledging that some people are better suited for certain tasks than others.
This concept of mastery is also a somewhat life-denying ambition. Those who become really great at one thing of course do so at the expense of becoming pretty good at a bunch of things. Life is always a balance; everyone is given the same amount of time each day to do their thing. The way you spend this time is up to you. But if you spend it disproportionately doing one specific activity, you will do so at the deficit of other parts of life. Brilliant artists and scientists often feel estranged from the world because of their overemphasis on one particular realm of life. Time is a priceless asset. The ways we choose to allocate it and the patterns we develop reflect who we are on a fundamental level.
We should respect the specialists without idolizing them. Someone who has worked very hard to achieve mastery deserves respect and recognition for their discipline, but someone who has worked hard developing a variety of skills also contributes value to the world even if they are not spectacular to watch. People enjoy the simplicity of extremes; they’d rather watch a violin virtuoso or a soccer star than a jack of all trades. That’s all well and good, but there’s no reason to laud specialization at the expense of eclecticism and well-roundedness. The key is to make the very most of your time, regardless of which skills you choose to cultivate.