Here Is Why Rushing For A Specialization Is Not The Ideal Way For A Better Career
Not a story about a bunch of gritty, hyper-specialized senseless people.
In the record-breaking book of 2008 by Malcolm Gladwell, The Outliers, he speaks about how some people get to become extremely successful in their respective careers. While he emphasizes the fact luck plays a significant role in it, he also mentions another key element that defines success, which is even more powerful. That is specializing and head-on commitment to that specified niche. It might not sound very familiar when I put it that way. The 10,000-hour rule is how everybody knows what I’m talking about.
In his book, Gladwell brings out a theory saying that anyone needs to spend a minimum of 10,000 hours on a respective field for them to master it and be exceptionally good at it. He brings out examples like Bill Gates who worked hard from an early age and put in his 10,000 hours of computer programming practice by the time he had reached his early twenties. The Beatles, who had already performed 1,200 shows before achieving the first commercial success of their career.
As you go through the book, it sounds more and more convincing. And even though common sense, it is obvious that you need to put a significant amount of time to become successful. For a rational mind, this advice is golden. But since we live in the 21st century, and the biggest entertainment of us is by taking advice out of context, people began to mutilate this concept and went all cray-cray with it.
It was not literal, duh…
Some people decided to take the 10,000 hours as a literal number to be excellent and not as just a number to emphasize his point. But the biggest misconception that gained momentum was, you need to start to commit to one thing and start adding on time. Just like that, it became a “The sooner the better.” game. Most could not care less about talent or whether or not actually like the specific field they are working on. The theory intended to show people that the amount of work that is needed for someone to become great is much higher than we would assume suddenly became a theory that forces you to pick a path soon and stick with it.
Bill Gates, in an interview, had something to say about it. I recommend you watch his video on YouTube. In a gist, he agreed with Gladwell about the amount of hard work that is demanded to achieve excellence. Yet we often ignore the process. For someone to fix on a field that he/she is willing to put 10,000 hours, they need to first go through numerous other interests that don’t convince them to stick with. It is not about picking a lane as soon as possible and stick with it, hoping to become exceptional as you put more and more time in.
In the book outliers, Gladwell equals 10,000 hours of approximately 10 years worth of work. That is a huge commitment. You need to be absolutely sure about what you do. You got to have the talent for it. Simply it should feel like it was meant to be. If it is not, that is when you say adios to that and pick another lane.
Tiger Woods Vs Roger Federer.
One of the best examples that people use to show the effectiveness of the mutilated 10,000-hour rule is the story of Tiger Woods. His father gave him a putter when he was 7 months old. At 10 months, he started imitating his father’s swing, and the rest is history. He managed to become extremely successful so early in his life because he managed to put in his 10,000 hours way sooner than most of us. This is a very valid argument. But is it the same story for all athletes? Or could it be blind luck that got Woods where he is?
On the other hand, Roger Federer started his sporting life when he was around 6 years old with rugby. He played some tennis, skiing, and wrestling. His mother was a tennis coach but declined to coach him because he did not return balls normally. He went on to play numerous other sports before circling back to become a tennis player.
You can take numerous similar examples from cricket too. The Sri Lankan spin bowler, arguably the best in the history of cricket, and the only player to reach 800 test wickets, Muththaiya Muralitharan, was a fast bowler throughout his school time. Another great Sri Lankan batsmen, Kumar Sangakkara who went on to be the first-ever non-British chairmen of MCC was never into first-class cricket till he left the school. In fact, he was so good at tennis.
Vincent van Gogh had 5 different careers before becoming a painter, and he called each of those as his true calling.
The bottom line is that it is not entirely true that you need to pick the path as soon as you can. Because it takes time to choose what is best for you. And that is where your luck might play a role in.
The frog and the bird
Up to now, we spoke about when to pick your niche. In all cases so far, sooner or later, we chose a niche and stick with it. However, what if we don’t need to pick a niche in the first place? What if it is not a mandatory requirement at all?
“Mathematics needs both birds and frogs. Mathematics is rich and beautiful because birds give it broad visions and frogs give it intricate details.” — Freeman Dyson.
I know this is not the most popular idea out there. Most of us believe that digging down on specializations is the only way. According to Freeman, that is like being a frog. Seeing all the granular details on the subject. The world needs people like that. They are the pioneers that carry the sciences of the world forward. But only with the support of another element.
The best example of this would be Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Wozniak is a genius, he built the best machines the world has seen at that time. He was the frog that made apple computers what it is. But only because he had the other element of support, Steve Jobs. Later in life Wozniak complains about how little Steve knows about computers. But Steve was not a frog. He was the bird in that equation. While Wozniak saw the tiniest details in the sand by being the best frog in his time, Jobs few higher than anyone and saw got all the pieces together. If anyone thinks they could have done it without the other one, they are deeply mistaken.
Kind Vs Wicked Learning Environments.
It is not merely the results that convince us of this deliberate practice. It is that the examples we take most of the time are associated with people who excelled in learning within kind learning environments. Take Golf or Chess for example. These types of environments have next steps and goals that are clear, rules that are clear which never change, and you get structured feedback as soon as you do something. Apart from chess or golf, I think there is one more thing that sounds a bit similar. The whole education system.
For over 20 years of our life, we learn the skills that we need to survive the world in a kind learning environment. You know all your next steps well in advance. The rules are simple and clear, just study and pass the exams. You get your results in a very structured form, and every year is like the year before.
But with that training, where do we move on to? A world where you don’t know what the next steps would be. There are no specifically determined rules to play it. Feedback is never structured. Sometimes you get over-exaggerated feedback and sometimes nothing. And the past can hardly show how the next year would be. This is a wicked environment.
We train ourselves in a kind environment and expect to survive in an ever-increasing wicked environment.
We live in a well-connected world where innovations come from a combination of different disciplines instead of drilling down on a single subject. In such environments, knowledge across multiple disciplines play a significantly important role.
Career-focused education Vs broader general education.
One research conducted with the participation of a dozen countries about students who got career-focused education, against students who got more general but broader forms of education shared how well they performed in their careers. Students who got career-focused education were quick to get jobs and were offered higher salaries. But they struggled harder and harder to stay up with the fast-changing world, they end up failing long term.
According to classifications by the US patent office, the latest innovations in the field of technology does not come from digging deeper and deeper into a field of study. Instead, most of the innovations come from teams that include individuals that have worked across several different technologies.
One thing is evident from sheer observation. If the requirement is to connect the dots across multiple fields, an individual with a broader knowledge will perform much better compared to a group of different individuals with specialized knowledge working together. Why? We always can make better, effective, and faster connections within ourselves than when it is among a group of people. It takes only seconds to run tens of different combinations that a problem can be solved within ourselves. The same task might take hours when given to a group.
Unfortunately, we create only a fewer number of such broader people right now. The systems are not supporting the cause. Mainly because such people are slower to catch up, and the effectiveness takes time. There is no way to intensify such behavior in the current system.
Therefore we short circuit the process that Bill Gates talked about, which I mentioned above. We see specialization as the only way forward to a bright future. If that is the case, it only makes sense to stop plying around and get on to whatever the field you stumble upon and stick with it. It surely will improve your grit. But what good can a bunch of gritty, hyper-specialized senseless people bring to this world?
Specializing as early as possible is basically the new trend. It certainly has its benefits. However, rushing into a field because of it and desperately holding on is not right. You need to go through different phases in life to know what is right for you.
On the other hand, specialization is not the ultimate key to success. The world is getting complicated by the second. We now need people who can connect the dots, more than the people who keep looking digging.