Specialization helps with Mental Health

Photo of Lawrence

There’s a lot of talk about generalization being the new King of the Hill. I suspect this is just LinkedIn/Careerist hoopla. Even so, I feel it’s incorrect.

When I worked as a web developer, I was routinely bombarded with new ideas, technologies, programming languages, frameworks, and much more.

Yet, the only way to be an expert is to dig deep and stay the course on just a few topics.

For me, I can also say that I’m more at peace, more focused, more calm – when I’m staying in my “box”.

I know a lot about a lot, and a little about a lot more. I don’t even think it possible to ignore certain things.

But when I’ve tried to take on too many varied projects with too many different concepts, my mental health suffers. The tools and technologies tax me, instead of helping me or my colleagues be more productive.

As an example, this is why I often just use a spreadsheet. It’s not elegant. It doesn’t have an app. Collaboration on spreadsheets is a bit trickier than with certain SaaS businesses. But overall, a spreadsheet just works. This is also true of plain text.

In my profession, I stick to basically one tool that I work on night and day. Its nature requires me to dig into adjacent areas of knowledge frequently, but that’s okay; it’s all still for a better mastery of this single tool.

When I try to take on other projects with what appears to be similar tools, I end up feeling extra stressed, even when I think those tools might be superior to what I’m presently using.

I don’t get paid to know a little about a lot of different things. I get paid to know a lot about a few things. And to be able to work very well with those few things.

A popular book out now promotes the idea of “generalists” taking over the world (Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World). I think a young person might find that an uphill battle. (I intend to read the book soon and am not here saying its premise is incorrect, but that for me, when learning something, I prefer to keep my distractions few and my focus narrow).

It’s true that people in the last third of their working life can appear to be generalists. They have done a lot and worked on a variety of projects. They can often do well financially, be well-respected, and do not appear as specialized. One might attempt to replicate that.

I don’t feel it can be replicated except by life experience. You can’t plan for that level through training. Just the travails, sufferings, setbacks, and standoffs of life that, eventually, either lead you to greater success – or not.

Look at a storied career of someone like Tim Cook. He is very knowledgeable and widely a generalist in many areas. But he didn’t start off that way. He grew into it. One step at a time, building slowly, but often without the intent or understanding of the direction, or even believing that one day he’d be CEO of Apple. I think most careers are like that.

However, that has become increasingly difficult because the demand is to “know” a lot about a lot, the pressure being to read micro-posts on every topic.

I have a friend who specializes in data governance, a relatively narrow topic, and yet even she is bombarded with a hundred different knowledge points on it. There are white papers, conferences, specialized software, and books on the topic. It’s never ending – and growing.

She’s not alone. I routinely observe people being stressed just trying to stay current in their field. The ability to narrowly focus on one or two things is rare – and difficult. I remember recommending to her to pick on of the top data governance software applications (doesn’t matter which), go through a product demo, and then spend several days understanding it well (ideally with a bogus data set).

That takes time and effort. The temptation for us all is to instead hop over to G2 and compare the top data governance packages (there are 142 listed currently) to “get some idea” of what is going on there. Then, we trick our brains to think we “know” something about it.

Even with my recommendation, it’s a far cry from mastery. There are people who use that software daily, and have for years. In her case, it’s hardly important that she have that level of familiarity, but the point is that even when we focus and dig deep, we aren’t masters. Sometimes we aren’t even admirably competent.

For me, this also rings true in reading. I have critical books I need to read to improve my life, my relationships, my parenting, and my career. When I add to that list other books I simply find “interesting”, or “entertaining”, the list balloons quickly. I once had over 1,000 books on my “to read” list on Goodreads. (I eventually deleted the entire account and started over, being far more discriminatory in my next iteration).

In summary, less is more, and focus is valuable. Knowing what to focus on can be a challenge, but at least attempting to know that and to understand that scatter shot won’t improve ourselves, and in some cases might overwhelm and stress us out as we accomplish less but do more, then we are on a path to self-discovery.

Even within those reading topics I mentioned above, I choose quite narrowly these days. For instance, the “improve your relationship” category of books is huge. I have two very narrow sub-categories I am reading, each with only 3-4 current “top” books in that category. The same is true of “career”. I also have only a small handful of sub-topics in the career category I emphasize (and if you follow what I read, you might figure out what it is).

Less is more.

Focus is valuable.

Specialization can be helpful for positive mental health.

Generalization comes over time, automatically, if you keep growing and building slowly.