The advice I most often read online about careers is to specialise. Find out what you’re good at and pursue that one thing relentlessly. Depth is where the gold is. Specialising is considered the path to riches and true success. But this is such an outdated concept.
While we do generalise in school to a certain degree, we are motivated to specialise as soon as possible. We go to college and pick a definitive course. Or we pick up a specific trade and become an apprentice. And we slowly get funnelled into a path of specialisation. Getting more and more defined until we are incredible at one particular thing. Or fail.
And this has worked well since society began trading and creating civilisations in earnest. It made sense that the good hunters would hunt all day. In exchange, those that were good at farming, making weapons, cooking or building would do that. At the end of the day, each could trade their skills to the other in exchange for their produce. A hunter could live in a house built by the builder, eat a well-cooked meal by the chef, use the best weapons made by the blacksmith and supplement his/her diet with the farmer’s produce. In return, he would give them the meat that he had hunted.
It all makes sense. Until it doesn’t. We kept applying this thinking during the industrial revolution and onwards. We generally believe that technological unemployment only affects unskilled workers. And benefits those that specialised and were highly skilled. But before the industrial revolution, we had weavers. Highly skilled workers that were out of the job with the invention of the mechanised loom.
And the trend did not stop there. Highly specialised jobs have been dead ends in many different industries. A raft of human calculator mathematicians lost their jobs with the advent of computers. Tram and train drivers are being replaced by machines. Switchboard operators were almost done away with. Electrical equipment assemblers are nearly obsolete. There are many examples of technological unemployment throughout history.
At a macro scale, of course, this is all good. As we advance technologically, different jobs are created that need new specialisations. New industries emerge employing more people. But that doesn’t help the individual. Sure, a person may be able to re-train. Or try and apply their highly specialised skills elsewhere. But in a lot of cases, this will be too difficult or too late for the individual. Life will go on, the economy will continue to grow, but individuals will be left behind.
The benefits of specialising are still lauded though.
Some think it’s easier to specialise. But the opposite is true. Specialisation takes dedicated work. Generalising is only a matter of following your interests as far as you’d like to. Some believe it will create job security. But specialising does not keep us safe. And we are more prone to long-term unemployment if we do lose our job.
The problem is becoming more pronounced today. Technology is in the height of exponential growth. Society in 10 years will be unrecognisable advanced from that 50 years ago.
If, for instance, we somehow went back in the past and picked up Leonardo Da Vinci. We brought him 50 years into the future. Well, he wouldn’t be too surprised at all. Horses would still be used. Science and technology would largely be at a similar state. Advancement was slow.
Now, if we took someone from say 50 years ago and brought them to now. Those giant computers that took up whole rooms now fit into a small device in people’s pockets. And nearly everyone has one, including kids. Oh, and they can communicate with people all over the world, look up any information on the planet, play graphically powerful games (none of that Pong shit) and are thousands of times more powerful than that junker that used to take up a whole room.
Apart from landing a man on the moon, we’ve also sent robots to Mars and our outer solar system. We’ve used satellites to give free GPS to the world. And we haven’t even touched on medical advances.
Someone from 50 years ago might just have a heart attack due to shock if we brought them to today.
So, we specialise in the hopes of securing a good career. But it’s likely that the choices we make will be obsolete in as little as 10 years from now. The advent of artificial intelligence is already consuming the world and it will begin to take jobs deemed as safe choices in a matter of years. There is no technological barrier to making whole factories automated. Look at Amazon’s warehouses for proof. Nothing is stopping fast food restaurants becoming employee free. Transportation is becoming more and more automated. Even highly skilled jobs like nurses and doctors are in danger from IBM’s Watson and Google’s DeepMind initiatives.
This won’t be stopped. Nor should it be. It didn’t work out well for the Luddites when they revolted against the technologies that were making them obsolete. And it won’t work out well for those opposing the current changes either. No, what is required is agility. What is required is generalisation.
Innovation and creativity are the only areas that artificial intelligence and technology will struggle to take over in the near future. And innovation and creativity are born from generalising. The generalist is one that knows a little about software development and a little about healthcare and connects the dots between the two. They are the people that are good marketers, know about manufacturing and have a clothing product idea. The idle dreamers that can put a myriad of ideas together and create something new. Businesses and whole industries are created by generalists. New inventions and scientific breakthroughs come from generalists.
So, we should not be afraid to dabble in things that interest us. Being a general is now where the gold is.