Day 15: The Risk and Reward of Specialization

Specialization is where the money is at.

The acquisition of a specialized skillset that has strong market value is a proven way to boost your income. If your skillset is rare and valuable, those who need it are going to be happy to pay to get access to you.

Specialization can also be risky.

All things being equal, being able to do many different things reasonably well opens you up to broader employment opportunities, albeit typically at a lower rate of pay, than being able to do just one thing exceptionally well. That means that it’s risky to specialize at the expense of maintaining a broad skillset. When you specialize you’re narrowing the scope of what you’re qualified to do.

However, specialization is where the money is at.

Specialize Thoughtfully

This idea–that there’s value in becoming a true master of your craft (whatever that craft is)–is the central tenant of the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport. Those who are at the peak of virtually every profession, discipline, and sport are highly specialized and have usually spent literal decades honing their craft.

According to Newport, one key to bear in mind when thinking about specialization is to recognize that passion follows skill. The evidence shows that if you become truly excellent at something, you will grow to truly enjoy it.

Quite often we get that mixed up and think that we should pick something to specialize in based on what we enjoy. However, for most of us, the things we naturally enjoy aren’t particularly good targets for specialization.

I really enjoy Netflix and Oreos. I really enjoy naps and hiking. These are not good targets for specialization.

A second key to bear in mind is that your path towards economically valuable specialization is made easier if you work with the circumstances of your life rather than against them. If you’ve already spent a few years learning about a given industry or profession, becoming a true specialist and expert in that field is going to be a lot easier than starting from scratch in a new field.

If I were starting over as an 18-year-old I would study computer science and develop specialized knowledge as a software engineer.

That would be a good choice as an 18-year-old. I’m 36. Could I still become a great software engineer? Probably, but it would take many years to truly become excellent in that field.

Based on my professional experience, the clear path forward is in the area of operational strategy and communication within distributed organizations. My past experience has prepared me for that specialization, and my current role is providing me with endless opportunity to further hone my skills in this area.

My Specialization Strategy

A job is a great opportunity to become an expert while being paid to earn that education, and that is my specialization strategy in a nutshell. At this point, my strategy is to develop skills and abilities that are directly relevant to my work.

In the near term, my specialization focus will hone in on a few areas where my expertise can use some deepening, all within the larger context of a growing distributed organization:

  • Use of goal-setting systems.
  • Building strong values and organization culture.
  • Engendering interpersonal communication and connection.
  • Avoiding functional/departmental silos.
  • Effective performance evaluation and feedback.
  • Coaching and mentoring.

These aren’t specializations I would recommend to most people.

Specializing in soft skills like these bears considerable risk if not paired with the right professional pathways. However, as someone who has worked with growing distributed organizations for several years, specializing in these skills is a natural progression in my career and these skills pair nicely with my existing skillset and expertise.

Featured image by Randy Fath on Unsplash

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