Specialization is for insects


Generalization vs. Specialization

A couple of years ago, I came down with a severe case of gold fever. Having no time, funds, or capability to go digging for gold in my back yard, I contented myself with watching the Gold Rush on the Discovery channel. In one memorable episode, one team was certain they’d discovered the site of an ancient waterfall where they believed a large deposit of gold was buried. Another team had just purchased a large claim of land and was eager to strike gold of their own. Both teams had vastly different strategies. The first team tried to dig straight down to the gold, while the second team arduously stripped away the trees and soil to expose the “pay dirt” beneath. While the first team was able to reach gold the fastest, they quickly dug themselves into a hole from which they couldn’t escape. The second team took much longer to reach bedrock, but when they finally did, they had acres of gold at their feet. It is fitting that the term for the soil between the surface and pay dirt is called “overburden,” for this is something we must all dig through to reach gold, in whatever form it may be.
I have observed these two techniques in both writing and scientific research.
I have seen many writers give the advice to “don’t worry about editing, write a crappy first draft.” Sure they will get to the end much sooner, but what will they have learned about writing? They may have a manuscript in hand within a few months, but they’ll have to spend many more months editing, and years to rid themselves of all the bad habits they’ve picked up along the way. That is a very deep hole to climb out of. When you approach writing methodically, taking time to learn about the craft, discard bad habits and pick up good ones, your manuscript will be much easier to edit and publish, and all subsequent manuscripts will be much easier to write.
In science, some researchers will study one disease for the entirety of their career. This has its advantages, but what will happen if you learn all there is to know about that disease, or if the funding for that type of research shifts, or if a cure is developed? The same goes for researchers who only ever study one protein, one gene, one pathway, or specialize in one technique or instrument. You might reach the gold first, but where will it leave you? At the bottom of a hole with no choice but to crawl out and start digging another one.
We might think specialization is the only way to penetrate deeply into the unknown, but when you approach the problem from all angles, clear away the overburden a little at a time, you will encounter fewer obstacles, and have much more room to move around and pick up whatever gold nuggets you see.
And maybe one day we will be able to break through the bedrock.
In the words of a great science fiction writer:
“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