The Most Valuable Way to Spend Your Time

Homo UniversalisLet’s talk about specialization, shall we?  The world is run by specialists.  It starts in college, when you have to declare a major.  Oh sure, you can major in “Liberal Arts” (like I did, incidentally), but no one does that, right?  It’s a quick trip to the unemployment line for those fools :).  Then, after college, you take a job, or open a business where you do one thing better than anyone else.

This continues on and on.  The better you are at what you do, and the more experience you have doing it, the more locked into it you become.  What if you realize one day that you don’t like what you’re doing?  What if you’d like to take a 90 degree turn off the path of your life and start blazing a different trail?  What then?

Instead of specializing, become a generalist.  Be a polymath.  Become like Leonard da Vinci; a person with insatiable curiosity and interest in many topics, not just a few.

Due to the vast amount of information available to us every day through various forms of media, and the increasing pace by which discoveries are made, there’s no way anyone can master a subject, or even keep up with all the developments.  This wasn’t always the case, however (or, it wasn’t the case to the degree it is now).

Leonardo da Vinci was renowned in the 15th and 16th centuries for his work in the fields of science, math, engineering, anatomy and botany, as well as his work in sculpting, painting, architecture, music and writing. Goethe was a renowned writer of literature and drama, composer of poetry, and a theologian and philosopher. Thomas Jefferson and Isaac Newton are two more contemporary examples of the type of person we now refer to as a “Renaissance Man”.

All of these men refused to specialize in one particular branch of knowledge, and became experts in many fields.  Granted, the amount of knowledge one had to accumulate during the times in which they lived was less than it is today.  However, that knowledge was much less ubiquitous, so the dedication to learning it had to be much greater than today.  All in all, it was very hard to be an expert, whatever the time period.

Why don’t people pursue multiple areas of expertise any longer?  Is it really because it’s that much harder to do than it was previously, or is it because we’re conditioned to believe that it’s impossible (or worse, undesirable)?

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, posits something he calls the “10,000 hour rule”.  He says that greatness in any given activity requires 10,000 hours of practice.  Basically, that breaks down to 20 hours a week for 10 years.  If you’re earning your pay doing something, expert status will arrive sooner than that (5 years, assuming standard work hours).  Chris Guillebeau, over at The Art Of Nonconformity, did a little research and came up with a figure of 14,600 hours to achieve the same result.

How many 10-year periods in a typical lifetime?  Setting aside the first two (the first ten years are spent learning how to walk and talk, and the second ten are spent in a hormone-induced haze), I’d venture to say that a serious, hobby-level enthusiast could accumulate at least 5 fields of knowledge in which they could be considered experts throughout their lives.

Do you have to be great at something to enjoy it?  Of course not.  However, it certainly doesn’t hurt.  By developing interests outside of a narrow focus, and by studying and practicing those interests (computer programming, or painting, or writing poetry, or carpentry, or whatever), you’re bettering yourself.  You’re filling out into a more complete person.  But more than that, you’re learning skills and abilities that you can pass along to others.  This ability is what’s important to me.

The greatest single thing you can do in your life is to become a person who can adapt and make accessible information that was previously unattainable by someone else.  If you can do this, and do it without dumbing it down or being condescending, people will beat a path to your door.

If you want to find your passion in order to make some money, this is certainly a way to do it.  However, even if you LOVE your job, you still need to generalize.  No one likes to be around someone who can only talk about one thing.  Depending on how interesting and accessible that one thing is, people may tolerate it for awhile, but they’ll never love it.  You need to have a breadth of topics that you can converse in, and one or two that you pursue to the level of greatness noted by the 10,000 hour rule.  Not only does this make you a more well-rounded person, a better dinner guest, and just generally more fun to be around, it makes your ability to add to the lives of others greater.  And, when it comes down to it, that’s what’s most important in this life.  Making other’s lives better.

What do you think?  Have you chosen to be a specialist or generalist in your life thus far?  Are you happy with the choice you made?  Share with us in the comments.

5 thoughts on “The Most Valuable Way to Spend Your Time”

  1. I like spreading my scope of knowledge based upon what serves the previous focus. That way it all fits together into a “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” thing. Through school, I did kind of do this backwards, but it’s all coming together. Everything happens for a reason, we just need to listen to the Universe and where it’s leading us.


    1. Great point, Daniel. I was thinking a little more about this this morning (after it posted, of course), and thought that you could leverage knowledge domains and “get up to speed” more quickly if you move from a domain in which you have skill to one that’s different but similar. Some skills will transfer, but you’ll enrich yourself and others by the use of complementary “niches”.

  2. I really enjoyed this post – I think you're right that what's most important is helping other people and making their lives better (and enjoying our own lives). And the more we learn, the better we're able to do that. There are a few strong talents I know I have, and I've debated whether to spend my time continuing to improve these areas, or branching out to focus on other areas I haven't tapped into as much yet (but still enjoy). I think a little of both is necessary, but you can't do everything – at least not all at once.

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