Thursday, December 29, 2016

Tools for Titans #17 : Specialisation is for insects.

Chase Jarvis is the CEO of CreativeLive and a highly decorated photographer who emphasises on dynamic shots and sports. While Chase is undoubtedly a creative, I find his ideas quite interesting.

a) Going premium on day one.

I am very familiar, and quite sympathetic to the systematic abuse of design and creative professionals in Singapore having worked ( and paid on time ) with book cover designers and web page UX experts. Our local SMEs still adopt the mindset that creative professionals or artists can be paid with "exposure".

One defence, which I hope to teach my kids (which includes my artistically inclined daughter) against this is to simply not to become a creative professional. You can pursue artistic interests as a hobby.

Another approach is to simply go premium from day 1. Be good enough so that you don't need to work for exposure. I guess the trick is to skip the stingy SMEs and start working for the MNCs and big companies immediately.

Same goes for real life. You've got to have some standards.

Don't date or associate with people flagged by your craydar.

b) Different, not just better

I am not surprised that this is the rallying cry for creatives everywhere. Being better is not enough, you need to be different so that people will notice you. Its hard to disagree with this.

Strangely the business world is in agreement with the creatives. Management strategists talk about product differentiation. Marketers talk about Unique Selling Proposition. There is even a business book on this theory called The Blue Ocean Strategy which puts in detail how to be different.

The funny thing is that  this idea itself, fails the "Different, not just better" test.

Just sayin...

c) Specialisation is for insects

Robert A Heinlein was the original author of this statement. His opinion is somewhat romantic. As a human being you must be able to do many things, butcher a hog, plan an invasion, build a wall. Specialisation is for insects.

It's really easy to come up with pithy statements which people will buy into. The problem is that these statement can come with dire consequences.

While I certainly aspire to have multiple skill-sets myself, I would like to remind the reader that your time and capabilities are not infinite. You can be a generalist and go for broad based skills but they will never be as deep as a trained specialist. Scott Adams mentioned in a previous article actually proposed a powerful strategy which works for ordinary people -  be top 25% in two fields.

In a changing economy, generalist skills may allow you to adapt better, but it is the specialist skills of the future which bring in the bacon and give you your financial security.

As such, I propose that the generalists-specialist divide is a false dichotomy.

To survive we will often need to be both.


  1. Easier to change your specialisation if you are a good generalist. Being a good generalist might be more important than being a good specialist in this dynamic world. Besides exceptions like Medicine and Dentistry.

    Big fan of Heinlein here due to ERE.

  2. I wasn't so fortunate having met some really bad generalists who claim that they are generalists but do not have any credible hard or soft skills.

    This is an inherent problem with labels. Its easier for someone with no skills to claim that he's a generalist but kinda hard for someone to claim that he's a specialist because many specialists roles require solid credentials or working experience.

    I had a short conversation with Jacob Lund Fisker when I first discovered his epic book. It was about the cost of labour in SIngapore and why it its much cheaper to pay other people to do DIY here.

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