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Pro: Students should focus their effort on mastering one discipline

By Ben Chesler
Published: October 2009

Great people throughout history have been extremely skilled at one thing and pretty terrible at others. Bill Clinton, for instance, was a great negotiator, but I wouldn’t consider him all that great at sticking to his marital vows. Albert Einstein was a whiz with electricity, but he failed all of his classes in high school.

What these men have in common is that they were able to enlarge their impact on society by concentrating their efforts on one thing and mastering it. As the old adage goes, it’s about quality, not quantity.

Exploring a variety of interests may be all fine and dandy when you’re exploring extracurriculars in high school and college, but in life, once you’ve found your passion, it really is best to delve deeply into it. That way, you can gain a thorough understanding of a particular subject, the advantages of which outweigh the advantages of having a vague understanding of a variety of subjects.

Here’s a personal example. The campaign manager for one of the political campaigns I work for goes to a mediocre college and consistently mixes up “I and “me. Even though I chuckle when I receive his barely-English e-mails, I have to admit that he can run a campaign like no other. I might do more high school activities and have a better college résumé, but he has mastered campaign management far better than I have mastered any one of my skills.

Had he chosen to apply himself to learning the finer points of subject-versus-object grammar, the campaign manager might have had to sacrifice his management expertise. The understandability of his e-mails would increase, but the campaign would suffer for lack of his experience and general political knowledge.

My point is this: when everyone is equally mediocre at everything, there are no experts. As soon as a complex problem arises, or higher-level knowledge is required in a certain field, no one will know what to do. Five mediocre people can’t add up to one great person.

When everyone has mastered his or her own field, the population’s ability is compartmentalized and maximized. When a physicist needs a paper edited, he can send it to a colleague who is an incredible writer, and in return build him a particle accelerator.

This kind of division of labor ensures that every problem is solved by experts in that field.

The idea of division of labor has been vital to modern industry; historically, assigning one person to one task increases the productivity of an industry and maximizes output. It makes sense that entrusting a job to someone who is naturally suited to it will lead to better results than making people who are only half-enthusiastic and half-skilled do it.

We can apply that same principle to our lives. Sure, it’s nice to be able to say that we’re averagely good at a whole lot of things, but in the long run, it’s more useful and more productive to be excellent at one passion. In doing the latter, we give society the greatest benefit from our skills.

By spreading ourselves too thin, we risk the loss of both progress and innovation. Only specialization will lead to success.

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