I’m Tired of Specialization

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been pulled in two competing directions.

On the one hand, I have been told I need to specialize.

I internalized the idea that if I was a jack-of-all-trades then I necessarily was a master of none.

I learned this is grad school, where other academic philosophers all chose one niche-topic-within-a-niche-topic, spent years obsessively writing a dissertation about that one niche topic, and then spent the rest of their careers essentially going deeper on that topic, using their dissertation as a diving pad into further specialist depths.

On the other hand, I have always been interdisciplinary in my interests, which is a rather nice way of saying that my interests are constantly shifting and I get bored easily when I focus for too long on any given subject.

Luckily I was able to make this interdisciplinary pathway into a quasi-successful academic path. I got a Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies, with a focus on philosophy and the social sciences (themselves broad topics). I then got a Master’s in philosophy at a department known for continental philosophy.

After that, I spent six years in Wash U’s interdisciplinary Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology Ph.D program. Even though this was probably one of the nation’s most interdisciplinary philosophy Ph.D. programs, I still felt stifled because I was pressured to specialize like all academics needing to write a dissertation.

I half-wrote two dissertations, both on completely different topics. One was in using fMRI to detect consciousness in the vegetative state. The other was on the ethics of gatekeeping in transgender healthcare.

But I wasn’t cut out to be a professional analytic philosopher.

I was always told that my writing style was too journalistic and that I had a tendency to synthesize disparate ideas rather than analyze deeply with the logical rigor of analytic philosophy.

But I wasn’t able to change my writing style or synthetic thinking process, any more than a tiger could change its stripes.

So I dropped out in my sixth and final year of funding.

I went on to work at Starbucks, get NASM certified as a personal trainer, and deliver pizza for awhile before I decided I needed a real career path and started teaching myself the basics of web development, interested in becoming a developer. This quickly landed me a job with a Content Management System company called RebelMouse. While I learned a lot there, I felt I was starting to stagnate so I committed myself to furthering my coding skills.

I purchased around 20 Udemy courses on coding, bought books, read Reddit forums, watched YouTube, built projects, and eventually got into a technology apprenticeship with an amazing St. Louis company called LaunchCode.

LaunchCode presented me with the opportunity to be a product owner at a giant healthcare company in the St. Louis area.

I didn’t even know what a product owner was when I saw the job description.

But I started learning everything I could about product ownership and product management, landed the job, and soon realized I had found something I was actually really good at that would pay me quite well.

Product management is one of those rare jobs that rewards interdisciplinary thinking. It helps to know a little bit about technology, business, sales, marketing, DevOps, agile, programming, design/UX, statistics, empiricism, project management, leadership, communication, business management, product lifecycle, soft skills, hard skills, and the list goes on and on.

This is perfect for my brain, which gets bored easily when I stick with any given subject for too long. I am a massive dabbler. Little of this. Little of that. Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis.

Right now in my role as a product manager, this is serving me pretty well.

But in my life? My inability to specialize before getting bored has taken me down a curious road of random, sporadic interests.

Let me tell you about my hobbies. Which is the impetus for this particular blog.

I have started many blogs in my tenure as a blogger (which spans well over a decade). I have started blogs about:

-Philosophy/philosophy of mind

-Transgender studies

-Photography

-Tarot cards

-Personal finance

-Cooking

In addition I have started many book projects related to my interests. I have only managed to publish one of them, when a publisher read my blog about trans topics and liked my writing so much I was able to successfully write a book proposal for an essay collection on trans philosophy and get published.

Like all of my diverse hobbies over the years, these blogs are great because whenever I get interested in a topic I pour my entire soul into learning everything I can about that topic to achieve a modicum of mastery as soon as possible.

This is great because I get to experience those intense flow-states associated with hyperfocus. But the downside is that I inevitably get bored and just suddenly wake up and lose interest entirely (sometimes after spending a good deal of money on that hobby). This has happened so many times for so many of my hobbies:

  • Philosophy
  • Psychology
  • Writing
  • Trans studies
  • Fitness/lifting weights/bodybuilding/powerlifting/personal training
  • Nutrition
  • Tarot/occult research
  • Beauty/makeup
  • Finance
  • Cooking
  • Baseball
  • Hockey
  • Economics
  • Photography
  • Chess
  • Coding
  • Blogging/social media
  • Star Wars Fandom
  • Business/leadership/marketing (yes, reading about this constitutes a hobby for me)
  • Novel writing (actually did write a 60k word novel in 17 days but then lost interest in publishing it)
  • Product management (while this is just me getting better at my job it’s also a hobby because I find it genuinely interesting)

Those are just the ones I can remember. The only consistent thread running through all these fleeting phases is that I usually feel compelled to start a writing project about them.

On the one hand, I love all this weird, random knowledge I’ve gained over the years. I own hundreds of books across an incredibly diverse set of topics. I would wager that this has been the key to my success as a product manager.

But on the other hand, I often feel incredibly conflicted about my shifting habits. I always feel like I need to just pick something and stick with it.

But now that I’m 34 I’ve recently come to accept myself after a lot of research and soul-searching: I will never settle. I will never specialize. This is just who I am.

My specialization is my lack of specialization. My strength is my ability to get bored easily and learn quickly. While this does cause a lot of consternation, it also makes life endlessly fascinating because I am always shifting gears into novel pursuits which, to me, are highly stimulating.

And as Tim Ferriss pointed out in his article about the Top 5 Reasons to Be a Jack-of-all-trades, it is a false dichotomy between being either a Jack-of-all-trades or a “master” of something. One can be both a Jack-of-all-trades and a master of many. As Tim argues, it actually doesn’t take as long as most people assume to achieve mastery in any given subject:

Specialists overestimate the time needed to “master” a skill and confuse “master” with “perfect”…

Generalists recognize that the 80/20 principle applies to skills: 20% of a language’s vocabulary will enable you to communicate and understand at least 80%, 20% of a dance like tango (lead and footwork) separates the novice from the pro, 20% of the moves in a sport account for 80% of the scoring, etc. Is this settling for mediocre?

Not at all. Generalists take the condensed study up to, but not beyond, the point of rapidly diminishing returns. There is perhaps a 5% comprehension difference between the focused generalist who studies Japanese systematically for 2 years vs. the specialist who studies Japanese for 10 with the lack of urgency typical of those who claim that something “takes a lifetime to learn.” Hogwash. Based on my experience and research, it is possible to become world-class in almost any skill within one year.

So I hope to have started my final blog. The blog where I can literally write about whatever it is I please without worry about fitting into a particular SEO niche. One day I might write about Heideggerian philosophy and the other day I might write about the psychology of chess. Who knows. In all likelihood, I will develop a new hobby or interest soon and begin researching it obsessively and whatever that ends up being, I’ll probably write about it.

The point is I’m no longer going to put myself into a particular box. I will write about anything and everything, regardless of whether that’s an optimal SEO strategy.

Hopefully, you find it interesting.

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