NOT EVERYONE IS A SPECIALIST

Ask yourself where you learned to assign “wrong” or “abnormal” to doing many things?
— Emily Wapnick

In my last post, I wrote about the two Adam Westbook videos that helped me shift my thinking about the “when” and the “how” success ought to be achieved. Over the course of composing the post, I knew I needed to follow it up with a point of view that highlights the inherent bias in the videos: Emilie Wapnick’s TEDx talk on multipotentiality. 

In 12 minutes and 52 seconds, Emilie slowly and calmly presents her main thesis: our culture gives considerable weight to people who choose one path and stick to it, but polymaths have incredibly valuable skills to offer. She gave comfort to droves of multipotentialites watching, not to mention permission and validation to be eclectic and wide-ranging in their interests. There is much truth in her assessment of the dominant view on work and success in our culture. Popular culture is overwhelmingly in favor of specialists. We began to lean this way in the 1950s during the Cold War: as the U.S. was deep in an arms race with the Soviet Union, millions of dollars were poured into establishing research centers, labs, and companies dedicated to producing one product or one technology extremely well. Sub-specializations quickly cropped up in aeronautics, military strategy, engineering, product development, and materials science. The cult of the specialist was born. The tangible effects of wars can can certainly be measured, but unexpected psychological side effects like this that can be difficult to realize, measure, and address. 

Reverence of the specialist was inscribed onto the dominant culture, and proliferated such heavy handed ideas like: the narrowly-focused life; having a professional destiny; finding your one true calling; dedicating yourself to a single craft, etc. 

Until I watched Emilie’s talk, I hadn’t realized I had totally been drinking this Kool-Aid. It’s certainly a powerful and sticky idea though; dogged vision and unceasing love of a topic can produce amazing inventions, breakthroughs, bodies of work, and make for compelling biopics. Deep knowledge and longstanding dedication are both extremely admirable traits. 

But what if you’re not wired to focus on one thing? The Mozarts and the Marie Curies dominate the zeitgeist: people who picked a “thing” early on and stayed with it. I had not considered that these people were just wired to be specialists, and you can just as easily be wired to be a polymath. Not to mention there were simply less "things" to choose from back then. How can we shift the dominant cultural worship of specialization and clear some space to include the polymath again?

For starters, let’s reconsider and shift how we talk about professions and careers to children. The first step of this, is self-reflection. How much has the notion of the specialist factored into your thought process about success? 

Children are incredibly present. I don’t think that asking them about the future serves them, but rather our own desires to be entertained. The question also reveals our more developed frontal lobe and its bias towards planning and dreaming about the future. A better question than “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is “What are you excited about right now?” Even this question is probably unnecessary; children are incredibly forthcoming about what their interests are! They enter a state of flow drawing, reading, writing, dancing, or playing with a ball, a paper airplane, lying down on concrete and staring at the clouds. Instead of asking them to pick one thing they want to do as adults, let’s all be more observant and keep track of their creative wiring now, whether they be focused on depth or breadth in subjects.