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Why You Should Stop Trying To Specialize

Your narrow focus is stalling your career

I am a certified specialist in orthopedic physical therapy. It means absolutely nothing.

Ok, maybe nothing is a little harsh. It signifies that I completed the necessary pre-requisites — I completed a 1-year residency — to sit for and then pass a 5-hour test specialist examination. It does not, however, signify that I am superior to clinicians who do not have the added 3 letters of OCS behind their name. Alphabet soup behind the name does not equate to clinical excellence. This is not unique to physical therapy.

Highly credentialed experts can become so narrow minded that they actually get worse with experience while becoming more confident — a dangerous combination. — David Epstein

Why do we specialize?

At face value, this question seems obvious; we specialize to refine our craft. Specializing means we deepen our skills to become experts, rather than becoming mediocre at everything. The idea of mastering a skillset has been advocated for millennia.

We often read books written by or about masters of a given field. Sun Tzu is a master at military tactics and his book The Art of War is required reading for most military personnel. In his book Mastery, Robert Greene describes the importance of an apprenticeship phase for anyone looking to master their craft. He accounts for the stories of Leonardo Da Vinci, Wolfgang Mozart, and Albert Einstein to showcase the value of maintaining a strict focus on a single field or craft.

The 10,000-hour rule — popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers and based on the research of Anders Ericsson — is known to most professionals as a threshold for achieving mastering in a given subject matter. Want to be a great writer? Get those 10,000 hours in. Interested in being among the best doctors in the world? Not a problem. Start with obtaining 10,000 hours. Gladwell uses cases such as the Beatles — claiming they didn’t break out until they achieved roughly 10,000 hours of practice and gig playing time — to drive home his point. Nowhere is specialization more prized than in the sports world.

Why is Tiger Woods the most dominant golfer in history (yes you can argue Jack Nicklaus, but the Tiger peak was more impressive)? Specialization, of course. Tiger was on TV using a driver at age two. He shot a 48 at age three and was a scratch golfer by elementary school. He lived and breathed golf; he focused on nothing else. He, along with some of the previously mentioned people, clearly has shown us the light. If we want to be great, we must pick a narrow focus and hammer it. Right?

The generalists

Rather than obsessively focussing on a narrow topic, creative achievers tend to have broad interests. This breadth often supports insights that cannot be attributed to domain-specific expertise alone. — David Epstein

The specialists often make headlines and stick out. They are typically seen as role models, regardless of our profession. We are falling victim to availability bias. Not only are successful generalists highly prevalent, but they are also thriving.

Take Charles Munger — the modern-day Benjamin Franklin — for example. Many people have never heard of Munger, and if they have, they may know him as Warren Buffet’s long-time business partner. This is true, but it greatly undervalues and misrepresents who Munger is.

Like Ben Franklin, Munger devoured all the information he possibly could — regardless of the field. Why was this so beneficial? He was able to translate his knowledge of multiple disciplines into wise business decisions. Here is an excerpt from Poor Charlie’s Almanac which highlights his use of range.

What makes a great business model for Charlie? His recommended reading materials provide some guidance. ‘Guns, Germs and Steel,’ ‘The Selfish Gene.’ ‘Ice Age,’ and ‘Darwin’s Blind Spot’ all have a certain theme: focus on the aforementioned issue of “competitive destruction”…when this theme is extrapolated into invesment selevtion, the preferred Munger business emerges: some thrive by outcompeting (a la Selfish Gene) and others outcooperative (Dawin’s Blind Spot). Once again, we see Charlie’s rich fluency across a broad range of discuplines at work…To name a few, he routinely considers factors such as converstion, i.e. how the laws of themodynamics intersect with laws of economics (for instance how paper and petroleum become a newspaper delivered to a front door), physoclogical tendednies and incentives (notably the extreme befavioral pressures they create, both good and bad), and fundamental sustainability over time (the constant and often deadly interplay betweem positive factors such “moats” and the ravages of competitive destruction). Charlie is possibly without peer when it comes to the checklist of atypical investment factors he constiders and his deep fluencey in the diverse disciplines from which they are drawn.

It is not special tools gained from a 6-figure MBA and constant focus on business and leadership books, it is the voracious reading of history, classical literature, economics, mathematics, physics, politics, and psychology that make Charlie Munger and Warren Buffet so successful. Throughout his career, Buffet has committed to reading 600–1000 pages a day, and the content is diverse.

“If you skillfully follow the multidisciplinary path, you will never wish to come back. It would be like cutting off your hands.” — Charlie Munger

How about the sports world? Jimmy Graham, a likely future NFL Hall of Fame Tight End, didn’t start playing football until his senior year of college. Hakeem Olajuwan, nicknamed “The Dream” and taken number 1 overall (2 picks before someone named Michael Jordan), didn’t pick up a basketball until he was 15 years old. That didn’t stop him from becoming one of the greatest players in NBA history. Dikembe Mutombo, another NBA Hall-of-Famer, wanted to become a doctor and didn’t try basketball until college. We find cases on both sides of the debate.

You don’t have to stay within the sports world to see a delayed career lead to overwhelming success. How many students have no idea what they want to be when they grow up? And when I say students, I mean undergraduate and graduate students. I didn’t decide I wanted to be a physical therapist until my sophomore year of undergrad, a researcher until a graduated my residency program, and I only recently started exploring the world of writing. What allows for both rapid change and success within a given field is range.

Specializing can hurt your development — enter Range

I notive that when all a man’s information is confined to the field in which he is working, the work is never as food as it ought to be. A man has to get persepctive, and he can get it from books or from people — preferably from both. — Henry Firestone

Range is obtaining a variety of skills and experiences, even if they may not be directly part of a given field. Ben Franklin and Charlie Munger are prime examples of the benefits of building range. By expanding your field of study, you gain new perspectives and information that refine your craft. Some of the most valuable skills I have developed in my career (and continue to work on) are in writing, sales, formal speaking, bias and heuristics, economics, management, finances, statistics. Aside from a brief overview of statistics, I didn’t learn any of the other information in physical therapy school. None of those topics appeared on my exam to become an orthopedic certified specialist. Yet, they have influenced my ability to treat patients and teach fellow therapists more than any manual therapy technique I was taught. How can I apply the technical information without foundational skills in communication?

Failing to build range can impede your professional development. It also can expedite burnout. The rush to specialize may lead you down a career path you have no desire to pursue long-term. This is no more evident than in the world of sports and music.

The problem with the 10,000-hour rule

Children are pressured at a young age to choose a sport or instrument to commit to. Parents are warned that if they wait too long, their child will fall behind the kids who have already made a commitment. Let’s return back to the 10,000-hour rule.

The popular “rule” was derived from a study assessing the career trajectory of violinists. By age 20, the elite players — the ones with the potential to be international soloists — had accumulated, on average, 10,000 hours of playing time. Conversely, the good violinists managed only 7,000, and the future music teachers a meager 4,000. As Ericsson, the author of the study points out in his book Peak: The Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, the conclusions were drawn by Gladwell are incorrect.

First, the players were rated by music teachers on their potential, inviting subjectivity into the study. Second, the 20 years was an arbitrary cut-off. What if the researchers decided to assess practice time at age 23? Would it be the 13,000-hour rule? Doesn’t have the same ring. Next, we have the issue of the small sample size; only 10 people per group. Lastly, the type of practice matters. This was the main focus of Ericsson’s book and research.

It was not strictly the number of hours the violinist spent practicing, but the type of practice conducted during those hours. Yes, a higher volume of playing time will likely trump lower volumes, but only if there is intentionality behind the activity. Deliberate, or purposeful, practice is when an individual gets outside of their comfort zone in a focused way, which clear goals, a plan for reaching those goals, and a way to monitor their progress all while maintaining motivation. Practicing alone is not enough.

Does this mean we should actually specialize, but instead of focusing on simply accruing more hours of practice or work we focus on deliberate practice? Not necessarily. Ericsson primarily researched violinists and chess players. The problem with extrapolating those two activities to all professions is the nature of the activity.

Chess and violin are conducted in controlled environments. Playing an instrument is a single task repeatedly performed. While you have a competitor to react to in chess, the environment is controlled and the strategy required, outside of the psychological piece of body language and potential verbal banter, is limited to the board. In these types of instances, specialization may be beneficial. To become a prodigy in chess or an instrument, you need to rack up the deliberate practice hours in that specific activity. Other sports, such as golf, may lean towards specialization as well. For most activities, however, this is not the case.

The Power of the Sampling Period

Early specialization is oftentimes not the answer. In his book Range, Epstein describes the benefits of a sampling period for athletes and musicians. This is typical during elementary and middle school. During this time, athletes and musicians are better off playing a variety of sports and instruments rather than fixating on one. Why? They develop a wider range of skills and perspectives.

Set aside the increased injury risk from specializing early in sports, focusing on a single type of activity blunts physical development in key areas. In addition, the task becomes a ‘have to’ rather than a ‘get to’ rather quickly. The child no longer enjoys playing the sport or instrument. The same holds true for any profession.

Excelling at a task feels good; fumbling through a new endeavor can be as appealing as the second task of any Fear Factor episode. Some people may even choose to lay in the bed of cockroaches rather than experience failure with a new task. Yet, it is the repeated failure and refinement that will foster greater professional growth and development. It is the range of skillsets that will allow you to pivot in a career elevate past the competition.

As I mentioned earlier with my role as a physical therapist, our jobs require a variety of skills to perform well. Many of these skills are never learned if he home in on a select few. A sampling period does not have to be completed during childhood. Upon graduating from PT school, I was a newbie with many potential paths in front of me. A specialization path would necessitate an orthopedic residency and fellowship program, followed by exclusive practice in the setting I was trained in — orthopedics in my case — and seeking continuing education exclusively from that field. What skills do we miss out on with a narrow focus?

The sampling period is more important in the early phases of a career. This is why taking a variety of classes in undergraduate school can be beneficial. The most valuable class I took in undergrad was public speaking. If it was a formal setting, as little as two people would cause my hands to shake and mouth to dry. Even large groups at parties were intimidating. This class completely changed my outlook on presenting, and now I love it. I am still an introvert, but you wouldn’t know it when I give lectures at residency, schools, and conferences.

Sampling comes in many forms, and it can occur after you have chosen a career path. It can be the simple act of learning outside your field. Learn how to improve your reading, writing, public speaking, non-verbal behaviors. Read outside your field and you will gain insights from external perspectives. Some of the most valuable books I have read are from the fields of mathematics, behavioral psychology, chaos theory, and economics. As a PT, I need to know about exercise, pain, and manual therapy, but I am limiting my potential with a narrow focus.

“I work at it. I always advise my people to read outside your field, everyday something. And most people say, ‘Well I don’t have time to read outside my field.” I say, “No, you do have time, it’s far more important.’ Your world becomes a bigger world, and maybe there’s a moment in which you male connections. — Arturo Casadevall

Give yourself future options

“Don’t commit to anything in the future, but just look at the options available now, and choose those that will give you the most promising range of options afterward.” — David Epstein, Range

Many books, articles, and podcast topics are on the art of saying “no.” We need to be selective with our time as it is the most limited resource we possess. I believe this is a sliding scale. As our career progresses, our use of “no” should increase. At the beginning of our careers, no should be more controlled. This does not mean allow yourself to be taken advantage of and jump on the highway to burnout. It means to be open to opportunities and experiences you may not seek yourself.

I never thought I would be a researcher; it wasn’t considered an option. In my orthopedic residency program, we had to complete a case series and submit a manuscript to one of our profession’s most prominent journals, the Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy. While I didn’t care about research, I adopted the mindset of “if I am going to do something, I am going at it 100%.” This approach paid off as my paper was accepted for publication. It was our practice’s first publication. I thought that would be the end of my research career. In the words of Lee Corso, “not so fast my friend.”

After completing my residency, I was offered the position of National Director of Research for our practice. The title sounds fantastic, especially to a 26-year-old aspiring to build a career, but it came with several caveats. First, I was a department of one. Second, I had no job description, only a vague guideline of the role. Third, there was no pay increase. The role was more of an idea, a trial run. Our CEO, wanted research to be a greater focus of our practice and he saw an opportunity when I published my paper. Despite no formal research training, other than two electives in PT school, and lacking a mentor to guide me, I was offered the role. I accepted.

The next 5 years (meaning until the moment of writing this sentence) I have learned through a home-made Ph.D. program. No, I am not equating my last 5 years to an actual Ph.D. It’s damn impressive what Ph.D. candidates go through and I won’t pretend my education has even approached the rigors and level of training they endure. Lacking the structure and rigor I have had to look to three primary means of self-education: reading (a lot), finding mentors, and trial and error. Nothing builds a thick skin like trial and error in the fields of research or writing.

After taking on the role, “no” had to take a vacation from my vocabulary. I took on quality improvement initiatives, combed through outcome data, recapped research, wrote research papers and blog posts, developed courses, taught at local universities, and increased my involvement in residency mentoring and teaching. I sucked at most of it. But by saying “yes,” asking for feedback, and applying the feedback — which often meant learning skills outside previous formal education and “traditional” PT training — I improved.

My research prowess still pales in comparison to researchers who obtained their Ph.D. (I would argue Ph.D. candidates would benefit from developing range for all the reasons previously mentioned), but I am proud of my accomplishments and have had a fulfilling career thus far. I have published in numerous PT and Medical journals — including Spine — and presented at national conferences. The Spine paper endured 8 rejections prior to publication and it took five years of submissions to finally be accepted by our profession's largest conference, APTA Combined Sections Meeting (naturally my first year will be the year it is virtual due to COVID-19). None of that would have been possible without embracing uncertainty and being willing to fail. None of it would have happened if I simply ‘stayed in my lane.’

There are many paths to building range

Saying no is a vital skill to learn. If those tasks had interfered with my ability to treat patients or run a clinic, I would have needed to push them aside. Day to day tasks requires you to frequently say ‘no’ as well. Prioritize and weed out the unnecessary, time-consuming tasks. As you become more successful in a given field, you will be able to curate opportunities and focus on the ones with the greatest ROI and personal fulfillment. But never discredit the power of a yes outside your comfort zone. Stretching your current ability and developing range will not only enhance your abilities in your current role, but it may also introduce you to a career path you never previously considered.

As I reflect on the value I received from obtaining my specialist designation, it isn’t the letters themselves than denotes I am an expert. I could have easily crammed for the test then coasted ever since. Instead, it is the information I learned and applied to clinical practice. But again, the letters are not necessary to be a great clinician. It is unlikely I could pass that test if I took it tomorrow but I am a far better clinician now as I have expanded my range.

For some people, building range may simply mean reading books and listening to podcasts outside your field. For others, it may be accomplished through a side hustle or assisting with projects outside your department within your organization. Building range is not a finite task with a graduation date. Building Range is a mindset and a lifestyle.

You must know the big ideas in the big disciplines and use them routinely — all of them, not just a few. Most people are trained in one model-economics, for example-and try to solve all problems in one way. You know the old saying: ‘To the man with a hammer, the world looks like a nail.’ This is a dumb way of handling problems.’ — Charles Munger


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