“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” -Robert A. Heinlein
Growing up, I was instructed to pick one career and take the path from high school to the lucrative career of my choice. Over and over again, I heard the advice to focus on one skill in order to make a career out of it.
I don’t know about you, but my natural tendencies and interests make such advice nearly impossible to follow. My interests range from technology to education to agriculture to health, making it really difficult for me to simply focus on one of the above.
Recently, I came across Tim Ferriss’s post about being a jack of all trades, and it started to get me thinking about the principles behind the well-intentioned specialization advice.
The argument for becoming a specialist rather than a generalist is that specialists have depth in one field, making it easier to leverage that one skill in order to make money and be effective in his or her career. I find the reasoning behind this argument extremely sound, and agree that everyone should aim to for depth in fields that their interested in.
But what I’ve begun to realize is that people generally overestimate how much time it takes to becoming world class at a skill. With the level of resources we have available to us in our modern day, becoming an expert at certain skills has never been easier.
In fact, I’ve found that people who are constantly learning new things beyond the scope of their comfort zone have an even easier time becoming world class at new skills.
The specialist who spends their entire life learning one skill may make more money doing what they do best, but the generalist who intentionally, systematically, and purposefully learns and explores are much more fulfilled with a vast variety of experiences, can make internal interdisciplinary connections, and are all around much more interesting people to be around.
The key to being successful as a generalist is to be constantly mindful of the story you are creating. The worst generalist, the person which the conventional wisdom warns not to be, is the one who can’t make up their mind about what they want to do, switching focuses whenever something becomes too challenging or emotionally distressing. To be a successful generalist means being very focused on a day to day basis, specializing on a daily basis so that they can generalize on a yearly basis.
The point is, specialization is for insects. Humans have such great capacities to learn and explore a whole breadth of topics as well as take the time to explore the depth, so long as one is intentional about it.
Everything in life whether it be business or family or otherwise, all boils down to interactions and relationships with people.
Everyone knows the story of Rosa Parks, A black woman who refused to give up her seat on the bus during the era of racial segregation. But the reason Parks was able to spark such a movement was not because of her brave act. Many blacks during that time were also standing up for themselves when whites mistreated them.
But why was Rosa Parks so successful?
Simply put, Rosa Parks was extremely well connected. She was known by government officials for her work in the NAACP and known by communities for being extremely supportive in schools and churches. She had a way of building rapport with everyone around her.
Then, when the famous event happened on the bus on that historical day, it united everyone who knew her and stirred up a reaction big enough to put the event into history.
The same goes for countless of other instances in history.
It’s easy as a creative or an entrepreneur to think that as long as I build something of quality, people will come. It’s easy to just focus on our craft and not get to know the people and the markets around us. Especially with the internet it’s easy to assume that posting on facebook or tweeting a message will get engagement, but that has no comparison to truly getting to know and building a relationship with someone else.
If you just know how to connect people and don’t have anything of quality, people won’t stay. But when you are both connected and have something incomparable to anything else out there, you can start a movement.
Many of us have dreams.
Whether it be solving a global problem, amassing a large fortune, growing a family, or climbing Mount Everest, all of these tasks are much easier discussed than accomplished.
Because even the grandest dreams are built of seemingly mundane and boring tasks. Becoming a billionaire starts with earning one dollar. Painting a masterpiece starts with one stroke. Climbing a mountain starts with one step.
But others of us just collect tools.
Not everyone has a grand dream for their life. Some people go through the system and conquer the mundane because they are told that having tools will lead to success. They never take the time to find the unique value proposition they bring to the world, because they don’t believe they have any great ideas inside of them. Some people collect multiple degrees, hoping that someday somewhere a company will be kind enough to support the lifestyle they want to lead.
But just as a house won’t build itself by having all the right tools lying around, neither will it get built if there is only a blueprint. Sometimes, the process bears little resemblance to the finished product, but it’s through a combination of vision and execution that a house gets built.
The people who are able to think big, but also persevere and show up regularly are the ones who truly accomplish anything they set their mind to.
Yesterday, upon returning to my car in the parking structure after a long class, I found the driver of the car parked next to me writing a note. As soon as he noticed me, he stopped writing the note and came around my minivan.
“This ain’t a compact car, look how much space you gave me. You’re lucky your s*** doesn’t get keyed.”
It didn’t seem to matter to him that I was clearly parked within the lines. I recognized his frustration, apologized, and went my way instead of attempting to defend myself. As I was driving home, I found that some of the negativity that the guy came to me with had rubbed off on me, and I was replaying what I could have said in that scenario.
Ironically enough, I have been reading Ryan Holiday‘s The Obstacle is the Way, a book full of proverbs based upon stoic philosophy and life lessons. I’ve found countless of situations where the topics discussed in the book are applicable to my daily life, but this situation was one I could not ignore.
Perception is seeing a situation from one’s own perspective, which is often skewed with different emotions and biases. Observation, on the other hand, is being able to see things for what they are, without any hype, emotions, or biases. Someone who perceives will often get caught in a cycle of reacting emotionally and irrationally, and can easily miss an opportunity or solution.
Have you ever noticed that it is much easier to be objective with other people’s problems than your own? Many times our own problems seem to be impossible, insurmountable, and hopeless until we decide to open up and have someone else take a look at our problems.
An outsider brings a fresh, observant perspective because they are usually able to see things for what they are without being tangled in a mess of emotions.
Instead of letting the situation bother me for the next couple of hours, I decided to first put myself in his shoes. He probably had a long day of classes too, and probably just wanted to get home, adding to the frustration when he found it would be difficult for him to get into his car.
Next, I put myself in an outsider’s perspective, seeing that I could have simply been a little more thoughtful next time I parked my minivan into a compact spot, even if I clearly was between the lines.
It’s not about who is right or who is wrong, but seeing the situation for what it is and seeing the lesson.
What stands in the way becomes the way. The obstacle is the way.
Consider the following story:
An American consultant was at a pier in a small coastal tribal village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellow-fin tuna. The American complimented the fisherman on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.
The fisherman replied only a little while.
The consultant then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish?
The fisherman said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.
The American then asked the fisherman how he spent the rest of his time.
The fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life, senor.”
The American consultant scoffed, “I am business consultant and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and, with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution.
“You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise.”
The fisherman asked, “But senor, how long will this all take?”
To which the American consultant replied, “15-20 years.”
“But what then, senor?” asked the fisherman.
The consultant laughed, and said, “That’s the best part! When the time is right, you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public. You’ll become very rich, you would make millions!”
“Millions, senor?” replied the fisherman. “Then what?”
The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”
The individuals in this story have two completely different goals and perspectives. Who is right is up to you to decide.
About 2 weeks ago, I began the intern program at Full Circle Farm. And as I walked into the field on the first day, I was greeted with completely foreign tasks, feeling like I was just starting to learn how to crawl. These were certainly not the buttons and pixels I have been so accustomed to manipulating.
I’m not writing this claiming to be an expert in agriculture, but rather I claim a role of a complete amateur, still learning the absolute basics of planting and harvesting. I will probably follow this up with another post toward the end of my internship.
I learned a couple things from my experience growing my lemon balm in my click and grow, but the last two weeks have been on a completely different scale.
Being on the farm and working the field has not only been my escape from the world of gadgets and internet, but has immediately presented lessons that have offered fresh perspective. To me, farming has been an interestingly spiritual experience, with each day uncovering more and more of life.
Here are a couple thoughts.
Everything is Cyclical – Perhaps the biggest thing being on the farm has given me perspective for is seeing life not as a linear progression, but a cycle. Plants are sprouted in the greenhouse, transplanted into the field, pruned and harvested, and then tilled back into the ground where cover crop is grown to refill the soil with nitrogen and other nutrients. With farming, there’s never an end goal to reach because the cycle is continuously happening.
And even the crops must be rotated on the fields so that the same crop is not growing in the same place multiple seasons in a row. Crops are rotated on fields in order to utilize nutrients as efficiently as possible, often growing in a procession of leafy greens to fruits to roots to legumes. Leafy greens require the highest amount of nitrogen to grow properly, fruits and roots require less nitrogen, and legumes replenish nitrogen into the system. It’s all about learning the cycles that happen within the cycles.
Fields must be worked, but crops take time – The farmer must diligently tend and nourish the crops, making sure the crops get enough sunlight, water, nutrients, etc, but no matter how hard the farmer works, there is no ethical way around how fast the crop grows. Sometimes impatience begs to see results immediately, but the work only affects the condition in which a crop grows, not the speed. But neglecting a crop can lead to a loss.
Every crop uses different nutrients and attracts different pests – Knowing which crops take what kind of nutrients helps to strategize and plant your farm in such a way to ensure a healthy growth. Not every problem is tackled with the same solutions, even though it would be much easier if every type of crop was identical. Additionally, with different crops comes different hosts of problems and pests that must be dealt with appropriately.
Growth is determined by the quality of the soil where the crop is rooted – Soil, the seemingly invisible factor that is under the surface is one of the biggest factors in the quality of a plant’s growth. Many things require looking under the surface to find potential qualities and problems of how a crop will grow.
Pests indicate an imbalance – Gardens grow toward and equilibrium, and much of a farmer’s job is arranging and planting the crops over cycles in order to maintain equilibrium in a field. Weeds and pests are often indicative of an imbalance of a certain nutrient, which is often something to pay attention to. Instead of simply solving the problem by attacking the symptom, restoring the balance often requires a thorough assessment of multiple factors.
To be continued…