Specializing in Everything

Good at everythingOurs is the age of specialists. To be better than average at anything requires a mono-maniacal dedication to that one thing. Should you wish to be a successful professional golfer, you need to devote most of your waking hours to hitting dimpled orbs. Should you wish to be a successful oboist, you need to devote most of your time to practicing scales and Bach. Should you wish to be a successful real estate broker, your days must be spent on the telephone and in your car, hustling sales. These days, being good at everything is nearly impossible.

Accomplished polymaths, so-called Renaissance Men like Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Jefferson, would have a difficult time in our climate of specialization. Generalists — people who try to do a lot of different things instead of settling on one specific task — can’t compete against experts. The fellow who plays the violin, invents nautical devices, and writes sonnets won’t be as good at his trio of avocations as those who do but one thing.

Indeed, our culture mistrusts anyone who would stray from his vocational pen. If you are a lawyer, you may only dabble in the theater as a distraction from contracts and torts, not Network with leaderbecause you have an original vision. If you are an insurance salesman, then surely your desire to record an album of jazz standards must be a silly lark you’ll later regret. If you’re a pediatrician, the tome you wish to author on the early paintings of the brothers Van Eyck is best left to academics who are paid to know about such matters. So little credence is given to the concept of “multi-talented” (unless you are a model who also dances, then it’s OK) that anyone who displays an interest and ability at a discipline other than his primary job is thought to be suffering a mid-life crisis, or, worse, a dereliction of familial duty.

The world, we think, would be a far more interesting and happy place if chasing improbable dreams was the norm instead of a laughable platitude. We may never see the likes of da Vinci and Jefferson again. But having a society filled with citizens who aspire to greatness at something other than earning a wage is nothing to scoff at. Daring to have unexpected interests, talents, and ambitions that extend beyond the singular specialty that pays the bills isn’t easy in an environment populated by experts. The benefits accrued to both the individual and the society in which she lives make the risk worth taking.

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