We’ve all heard the conventional wisdom that we need to be specialized in something, be very good at something that only we can do, or we won’t get much attention and we won’t get much market share. Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been known to be highly unconventional. I am not unconventional for unconventional’s sake, I am unconventional simply because I apply universal principles to all my beliefs and actions. I go along with what people say only after measuring what people say against those universal principles. Very often, what people say doesn’t measure up.
Taking “specialization” as an example, there are of course truths in that logic. Every single one of us is special, and every single one of us is meant to do stuff no one else is capable of doing, six billion people or no. The sad fact is that many people seem to think that being “specialized” means only doing what you’re best at, and doing almost nothing else. I remember one of my former bosses relating this story to us several years ago:
[One of our government leaders, who happened to be a prominent figure in charge of sports in Singapore, went to the UK for an official function. Many notable athletes from the sporting world were there, including one of the top shooters in the UK. As they mingled and made various small talk, our government leader approached this top shooter and asked him about how he spent a typical day. “Well”, the top shooter said, “I get up in the morning, potter around for a while, and if I feel like shooting, I call my coach and we go to the range. If I don’t feel like shooting, I relax and hang out wherever I feel like hanging out. If I feel like shooting again, I call my coach and off we go”. Our government leader asked him, “What else do you do, do you have a part-time job?” The top shooter looked at him in amazement. “No, that’s all I do, and I get paid pretty well for it!”]
I remember that my former boss exclaimed then that our government leaders needed to learn something from that episode. As I recall, I felt a certain sense of agreement, but there was something else missing that I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time. A while later, I realized what it was, of course. That top shooter must really have led an extremely boring life, or else he was someone who was quite content with just shooting and spending the rest of his time catering to whatever took his fancy. I suppose many people would have greatly desired to have traded places with him, but I suspect that they wouldn’t have been very fulfilled once they were there. Is spending your life shooting clay pigeons for gawking spectators very fulfilling? I don’t know, but I suspect not. What good does it do for others? Besides a very temporary high rush of adrenaline and the glory of having one’s country win a certain shooting championship, not very much, I trow. People need a lot more than that for a fulfilling life. People need to know that whatever it is they do, some other people will remember them for who they were long after they were gone. Does that describe you, by any chance?
That is why so many people’s perceptions of “specialization” fall short of what they ought to be. Yes, we all can be great at something, but we also need to be good at other things. Especially those things that are adjacent to what we “specialize” in. Those adjacent skills, competencies, activities, businesses, etc, may not appear to be directly related to the primary pursuit of your life, but they should certainly support, buttress and complement what it is you do. Above all, your specialty ought to be something that serves the needs and, to a certain extent, the aspirations of others. Take throwing a punch, for example. Do you realize that, when you throw a punch, you’re not just using your fist and your arm? You’re using almost your entire body, in fact! Your waist turns with the throw of the punch to add more torque. Your toes dig in and propel you forward for added force. Your opposing arm is drawn back both for balance and a little more torque as well. All for a simple punch.
So, remember, when you opt to specialize in something, make sure that it genuinely helps others, for a start. And make sure that you become good at those things which are adjacent to whatever it is you’re doing. Those adjacent things actually support whatever it is you’re specializing in. Then you will find that your specialty enters the realm of spaciousness, where there is room to grow. Otherwise, it will just be the embodiment of mediocrity. Speciousness.