Monday, August 11, 2008

Specialization: The Case Against

I spent the second half of July working hours every day on details of the design of my forthcoming book, Fear of Nothing. The design work involved lots of dragging on the mouse as I selected rectangular regions, moved objects, and adjusted controls on the computer at least 10,000 times. My wrist got sore from the repetitive mouse movements and two weeks later is only 80 percent recovered.

It makes you wonder about the people who do the same work all year long. They don’t have the luxury of working on something else for two weeks or longer to recover from the physical stresses of design work. Some, of course, avoid the repetitive stress injuries completely by having stronger arms and better work practices. But some are eventually disabled by the repetitive stress of their work. I have personally known three who were forced to stop work entirely for several months after the stress of computer work temporarily cost them the use of their hands.

And this is, in a nutshell, the case against specialization. Economists traditionally are in favor of specialization as a way to improve productivity. If you work in an area you are good at, you will get more done than the average person who attempts that kind of work. Focus on one area of work and learn all about it, and you become even more productive.

Economists tout these advantages of specialization, but there are arguments against specialization. Work on the same thing all the time, and it is hard to come up with a fresh perspective that could lead you to innovations in your work. Do too much of the same thing, and it will wear you down.

Repetitive stress injuries are the most feared result of doing too much of the same work. They are so common they are often abbreviated RSI. Every area of the body has a form of RSI. Typists get neck stress and often eyestrain if they spend all day looking at the same copy board. Baseball batters can get upper back injuries from the twisting of swinging a bat. Guitar players wear out their finger tips if they try to play all day long. Singers who sing for more than an hour at a time may wear down their voices. A driver who spends the day pressing pedals with the right foot can get sore in the upper part of the right leg. You get the idea. General Motors faces the possibility of bankruptcy largely because of the medical costs from the repetitive stress injuries of its assembly-line workers.

It is not human nature to do the same thing all day. Early farmers had to learn mental tricks to keep themselves focused on the sunup-to-sundown work of harvesting. But their reward was enough food to last all winter, and the off-season gave them four months to rest and prepare for the next season. Most work now has no off-season, and the mental tricks necessary to focus productively on accounting or computer programming for 48 to 50 weeks of the year are more than most of us can muster.

So we are jaded. We are good enough at what we do to keep going, but so burned out that we barely slog along. Specialization is a good idea, but it is so easy to overdo it.

There are enough anecdotes to establish that staying in a specialty is not the key to success: The corporate lawyer who made a fortune when he started a vineyard. The medical doctor who moonlights as a computer programmer. The journalist who moved up in the world by becoming a corporate trainer. The enthusiastic beginner who, for the first few months, outperforms everyone else in the office, even those who have been there for forty years.

I have never been a big believer in specialization in my own career. Am I a recording engineer? Well, yes, but also a guitarist, drummer, computer programmer, book author, photographer, and let’s not forget economist. It’s easy to say that I might have found greater success by focusing more on just one of these areas of work. Maybe I would have. But maybe I would have burned out and ended up doing the same mediocre work that so many people do after a few years of doing the same thing.

We know a little about how to keep work fresh, and it pays to start with the most basic things. If you work at a computer screen, look off into the distance for five seconds every two minutes to keep your eyes fresh, and get at least five minutes of exercise on your lunch break. Or, if your job is all standing and walking, make sure you sit down for five minutes every now and then. “Shoulder to the grindstone” might be a cliché for hard work, but it is the opposite of what it takes to stay fresh and productive. Instead, look for small ways to mix things up.