Categorized | Design, News

Specialization is for Insects

Posted on 20 July 2006 by Demian Turner

Mike and Steve were chatting in #seagull about the ups and downs of specializing in one career skill, and this quote came out:

Heinlein – Specialization is for Insects

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.

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9 Comments For This Post

  1. Scott Mattocks Says:

    No offense, but that is the dumbest thing I have ever heard. Specialization is what enables someone to do any of those things. If it were not for specialization, we would all still be small roaming groups of ape-like critters living in the forest.

    If you hone in on a particular skill set with pride and passion, you will master that skill set and become indispensible in your field. Try to cover too many skill sets and you become a hack with little market value.

  2. Hans L Says:

    I agree with Scott, this is a really, reaally dumb quote. It’s so dumb, in fact, that I too feel compelled to comment on it! :)

    Clearly the person being quoted must have meant something semantically different from “specialization” (maybe “myopia”?) — for being able to specialize in one topic does not preclude having an understanding of — even a deep understanding of, even a specialization in — other topics.

    This quote also demonstrates a profound ignorance of the insect world.

    Now, I think there’s a way to save the quote — or at least to make it funny in addition to stupid: add “, appreciate the depth and complexity of the world around us.” to the end of the list of what us humans should be able to do.

  3. Mike W Says:

    I think myopia (maybe arrogance) is when one believes one is “indispensable”. Technology evolves, so do the labor practices that drive the workforce. Yes, there are handfuls of people in any given niche who are “safe” so long as the technology they are proficient in remains viable. Any observer of the IT events over the last 10 years knows this is folly.

    Popular technology will replace niche markets at some point in time, then the niche player has to actually compete. Once that occurs, it’s never long before they are out looking for a new skill to master.

    Furthermore, I reject your assertion that a person is unable to master a larger skill set. For example, a programmer should spend the time to learn a new language every year (LOTY for the pragmatic folks out there). Never know when your niche will be handled by a small sweat shop in a province of some far off land for 1/100th of your current “I am the master” wages.

  4. Brandon Burley Says:

    It’s an intellectual play on the site of We Should Do It All– a Brooklyn based graphic arts, and information architecture firm.

  5. Mario Izquierdo Says:

    Konrad Lorenz defined the man as the specialist of the non specialization (as species level).

    In our social arena, is most adaptative to be specialized in any area than to know a little of much areas.

  6. Kyle Lougnot Says:

    First I want to separate specialization from skills abilities. All of us have our strengths and our weaknesses and are capable of doing more than one thing successfully.

    I problem is that we live in a hyper competitive world, and in order to be successful in the marketplace you have to be head and shoulders above the rest.

    Doctors and lawyers get it. Why don’t we?

    There is a doctor for every body part, and new types of lawyers come on the seen almost daily.

    Both are excellent examples of professionals who have in depth knowledge of their market segments and have used that knowledge to their own betterment.

    Technology professionals on the other hand have done a very poor job of educating people on the outside. Even IT managers and recruiters are often clueless when it comes to knowing the difference from one programming language to the next.

    That is why you see resumes stuffed with keywords that essentially say “ I am techno superman”, I know all technologies and languages and am better than everybody else at all of them. I can configure a CISCO pix router, while writing a Java struts app. O by the way can you configure exchange while you are at it.

    Give me a break! That is absolutely ridiculous. So we end up having to work and extra 20 hours that week to learn how to configure the PIX router and exchange server.

    While I am all for learning new things, I don’t want my relationships to suffer as a result. Also, that extra 20 hours represents a 50% pay cut for that week.

    Mike W does make a good point you will be only valuable in your niche so long as your technology remains viable, and with market cycles shrinking all the time the shelf life of a skill set shrinks with it.

    We need to milk skills set for everything they are worth, and when a general category is spent we need to dig deeper and specialized within that broader category the same the doctors and lawyers have done.

    There are doctors for every body part, and lawyers for every facet of law. We need to do the same if we want to stay in this business.

    Just my 2 cents.

  7. Paul C Says:

    I think it is a good quote. I have read all of Heinlein and I would bet that he meant it with another dimension.. time.
    Maybe look at it over a lifetime instead of always thinking you exist right here right now all the time.
    Also think of how you are treated at a specialists office and underline the word “human” in the quote.

  8. John Tyner Says:

    I think it’s a brilliant quote. Not that it needs to be taken literally. Specialization doesn’t exclude diversity. I can still specialize in something and keep a well rounded skillset. This quote inspires me to think in larger pictures – who knows when you might need to set a bone, or be in command, cook a delicious meal, etc. It expands our horizons and makes us more integrated into society, because we think of ourselves less as a category – ‘accountant’ ‘programmer’ etc – and more as an individual.

  9. Artur Caratão Says:

    It’s a brilliant quote, and if you believe in specialization, it’s slow death, in 20 years the thing you are specialazed could desapear, in a fast moving world. And in the end, you are useless. But in this quote he uses everyday living examples, and in this point of view I can say, you can’t make a good meal if you can program a computer, damn you must be most inapt guy on the planet ….

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