Doing one thing well isn’t enough

It is that time of year when the students begin classes at the local universities. If they behave like what I remembered when I was studying, they’ll choose whatever is most profitable when they start working. Or whatever they excel in, hoping that their chosen degree helps when they start working. Concentrating their efforts on one thing, thinking it’s the best use of their university time.

I think we’re churning out enough specialists. I know of efforts to create well rounded individuals, who study a little bit of knowledge outside of their area of expertise. This is not enough. In this age of information, where knowledge is key, having information from diverse sources is critical. Understanding information from diverse sources is even better. Well rounded doesn’t cut it anymore. We need more polymaths.

Competing to be the best is commendable, and encouraged. The thing is, all the popular fields are taken. You want to be the best golfer? Go ahead. You want to have the largest software company? Go ahead. I just think there’s an alternative. I agree with Scott Adams (of Dilbert), who thinks becoming very good (top 25%) at two or more things is easier.

For example, a company needs a competent programmer. Hey you’re good enough. The company also needs a competent web designer. Well well well, turns out you’re good at web designing too. Match made in heaven.

You don’t have to be the best. Being 2nd best is often good enough, because you only need to be better than most other people.

  1. Vincent Tan

    I think the refusal to learn new stuff is partially fuelled by fear. Fear of admitting they might have chosen the wrong topic to focus on. Or even fear of encountering new thoughts when they learn new stuff, that they might be laughed at if they don’t manage to learn it well.

    Societal expectations also played its part. Medical specialists are generally payed more than general practitioners. A software consultant is better rewarded than a software programmer with equivalent knowledge, because a consultant is believed to be better.

    Combined together, people just concentrate on whatever they have, thus cementing their career-ending pigeonholes.

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