“Specialization is for Insects”

9 Mar

While I was reading a book this morning, the author reminded me of an important quote by Heinlein, which highlighted that “specialization is for insects.” Is this a defense for the jack-of-all trades? Does this help in the expert-driven job market?

The exact quote is:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

Bob is the perfect example of “love the art, not the artist;” Heinlein was not a nice guy. Left his first wife and family in Missouri, known for yelling at (and in one case, punching) fans at conventions, he’s not a guy to emulate. On the other hand, he went to the Naval Academy, survived a debilitating disease, ran for Congress, helped make science fiction be taken seriously as a genre, and married a hot redhead, so… maybe he had reason to be full of himself.

But let’s look at the quote — I certainly can’t butcher a hog or conn a ship, but I feel I could if someone taught me how. What Heinlein was rattling off was stuff that was applicable to his childhood and his life. He grew up on a farm, so naturally, he learned how to butcher. He was a naval officer, so he learned how to conn a ship, but you might learn those skills growing up near the Mississippi River. In the book, the quote comes from Lazarus Long, the author’s Mary Sue, had lived for a couple thousand years by that point, so he had a few things to say about living. When this book came out in 1973, Heinlein was more in his preaching phase, so it’s not the best book to start with to appreciate his writing. Start with Starship Troopers, then the Moon is a Harsh Mistress, THEN Stranger in a Stranger Land. The rest of his books will come easier then.

However, I’m getting away from the point. In normal life, a man (in the general sense, screw your pronouns) is expected to be more than just a mathematician, or a doctor, or whatever. You can’t be married and not expect to mow the lawn, do the dishes, listen to your spouse’s complaints, change the diapers, and the thousand tasks tasks that happen on a daily basis. Now no one is expected to be great at everything. I find that someone who is super keen in one specialty often suffers in the rest of his life. For example, my mother-in-law was great at making costumes… just not always on time, and to the exclusion of everything else, including taking care of her four kids which was a full time job in and of itself. A person who’s a great accountant at work often can’t balance their own checkbook… because they can’t handle such piddly numbers.

But how do you get a job if you don’t specialize in something? Well, for one–no job is ever one thing. Even a factory line worker may be good at putting on one widget, but your foreman will shift you around to different jobs during the shift. However, if you’re not good enough in one thing, often you find someone willing to hire you for a position that doesn’t require specialization. I was a history teacher, but I had taught computers (and worked on them) in the past, so my previous boss hired me on to teach healthcare software. I wasn’t in healthcare, but I could teach, and knew computers; two aspects a lot of nurses have difficulty with. Or you could go into business for yourself, but that often requires… more than a passing fancy at marketing and accounting. So unless you can find someone to do it for you, that’s often off the table.

Which gets back to my job search. To convince someone to hire a jack-of-all-trades, you have to do what I call “creative non-fiction.” Even me, whose been an instructional designer for over 10 years, has trouble transitioning from one industry to the next. The job is exactly the same, but employers have difficulty with “Well, you’ve been working in healthcare, what would you possibly know about the law?” Seriously? Are you asking me to teach at a law school? No, you’re asking me to build online modules, and I’m not the one providing the content in a hospital either. I don’t need to know the law. So I massage my resume to fit the job I’m applying for. Even worse, most big employers use applicant tracking software (ATS), that looks for keywords, and ranks resumes based on percentage of matching their job description. So even the most ideal specialist might not even get to the hiring manager’s desk. However, there’s a way to beat those systems.

So… maybe we’re all generalists pretending to be specialists. But what do you think? Are we more specialists than I think? Is Heinlein actually a better guy than I think? Have you got a better way to get hired? Let me know in the comments below!

And while you’re at it, read Time Enough for Love. It’s a good read–and after you read that, pick up one of my books! Or if the $1.99 price is a bridge too far for you, download some of my free stories and read those. You’ll be glad you did. 😉

One Response to ““Specialization is for Insects””

  1. Silk Cords March 9, 2021 at 4:58 pm #

    Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein has some interesting ideas on the subject.

    Heinlien isn’t all bad, just an average human. 🙂 The more I see of society, the more I think the libertarian meritocracy he laid out in Starship Troopers is what we need… IF we could keep the playing field level.

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