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You’ve Got to Specialize

If I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that being “well-rounded” is a sure path to mediocrity. You’re much more likely to achieve career success if you get really good in one area than if you achieve moderate mastery in a number of different areas. That’s true even for managers and executives. You may not think of executives as specialized, but in fact executives often focus on specific types of corporate actions like start-ups, turnarounds, mergers or quality improvement, and they’re often brought in specifically to achieve results in their areas of expertise. In fact, executives often specialize more than the rest of us because they can afford to delegate almost everything but their specialty.

We’re taught to be generalists
We’re not given very good training in achieving specialization. Our schools in the U.S. try to make us well-rounded by forcing us to learn all of the basic subjects. This makes sense in early education – everyone needs to know how to read and do basic math – but the emphasis on generalization continues throughout high school and college. Most schools consider a successful student to be one who does fairly well in all subjects rather than the one who does exceptionally well in one subject. Yet it’s doing exceptionally well in one subject that will serve you better in the long run.

When we join the corporate world, the performance appraisal process continues to try to make us well-rounded. Most appraisal systems evaluate us in a wide variety of categories, and put emphasis on the categories we don’t do very well. Our corporate training then attempts to improve our abilities in these weaker categories, and so we typically spend little or no training time making us stronger in the areas in which we’re already strong.

Why do we think generality is good?
There’s a precedence for this behavior in other parts of our lives. Take the human body as an example. We want everything in our body functioning at a normal level because all of the parts of the body work together to keep us alive and healthy. It doesn’t matter if we have the best brain or liver or spleen if the other parts of our bodies aren’t around to keep our body running. It’s the whole body that matters, and we need to have overall health.

Human beauty is another example of well-roundedness. Studies have shown that people’s faces are perceived as beautiful when the proportions of the face are closest to the overall average proportions for the type of people we see every day (which is why definitions of beauty vary in different parts of the world). If your nose is longer or shorter than average, then you’re perceived as less beautiful. If the distance between your eyes is more or less than average then you’re considered less beautiful. Scientists explain that this perception of average as beautiful is programmed into us to help us select a healthy mate, since facial proportions radically different from average may be a sign of “bad genes.”

Based on these two examples you can see how we might begin to think that well-roundedness is good. It is important to be well-rounded if you want to be healthy and beautiful, but a well-rounded life with nothing to distinguish you from others is the very definition of mediocrity. To succeed in life you need to stand out from others, and the only way you’ll do that is to find the one or two things you’re really good at (which are usually the things you most enjoy doing), and develop your skills until you become outstanding at those one or two things.

How do you know what to specialize in?
This is the big question, kind of like the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” For some people, the decision is easy; they naturally gravitate to their strength at an early age. For others it’s more difficult; they can do a lot of different things and it’s hard to pick one of them to be a specialty.

Here’s an exercise adapted from the wonderful book The Three Boxes of Life and How to Get Out of Them: An Introduction to Life/Work Planning by Richard N Bolles, who also wrote the job-hunting book, What Color is Your Parachute?. Make a list of the 10 things you’ve done in your life that you’re most proud of, whether at work, in school or in your personal life. Make sure that these are things you’ve done – not just objects you’ve owned or titles you’ve held. For each item on the list, write a short paragraph that explains the item in a little more detail, telling what you did and why you’re proud of it.

Now make a second list of the 10 things you’ve done in your life that you most enjoyed. Again, write a short paragraph for each item that gives more details about the enjoyment you experienced.

When you have completed the lists, go back through the two lists and try to find one or two common threads that run through multiple items. Are there similarities in the situations, in the things you did, or in the processes you followed? How did you feel when you were doing these things? How were these things different from other things you’ve done?

Using exercises like this (see more exercises in the The Three Boxes of Life and How to Get Out of Them book), you can begin to identify your specialty. In general you’re looking for a specialty that:

  1. Makes you happy when you do it
  2. Makes you stand out from the crowd because you’re so good at it
  3. Is specific enough to make you attractive as an employee or service provider
  4. Is not so specific that there’s very little market for the service
  5. Is based on a process rather than a product (Don’t tie your specialization to expertise in a specific product from a specific vendor, or you may find yourself obsolete in a few years)

Here are some examples of IT specialization:

  • Building data centers, consolidating them, or optimizing their performance
  • Designing human-engineered information systems for mobile service workers
  • Planning and managing software development projects that implement a technology for the first time
  • Finding and fixing software or system problems that other people have been unable to solve
  • Designing e-commerce web sites for teenagers
  • Putting together a highly-motivated team of competent software developers
  • Understanding the needs of a particular kind of business and determining the best way to utilize IT talent to contribute to the business

A Personal Example
I went through the list-making exercise many years ago, and I was initially confused. There were lots of different things on the list that didn’t have any obvious similarity. Then I thought about it some more, and I discovered that my list consisted mostly of things that I had learned and taught to others. I discovered that my special skill is in simplifying complex things and then leading organizations to make changes as a result.

Over the years I’ve applied this skill in corporate due diligence by helping businesses understand what’s really going on in the IT organization of a company they want to acquire. I’ve applied the skill to simplify and revamp the processes of a financial services business. And I’ve applied the skill in numerous other situations ranging from product development and systems design to the creation of IT strategy. In each case the specialization was the same – simplifying complex things – but I was able to apply that specialization to a wide variety of cases.

A warning: my skill is an example of specialization that cuts across traditional organizational lines – it doesn’t correspond to any typical job title. Some specialization is like that, but you’ll find that it’s more difficult to sell to employers. Buyers of a skill usually translate the need for the skill into the need for a person in a conventional job category. If your skill isn’t associated with a common job category, then you’ll have to work extra hard to find jobs.

Next Steps
Once you’ve picked your specialty, you should take steps to make it your own. Learn more about it, find role models that you can emulate, and find ways to improve on the processes that your role models use. Go beyond all of the established published literature on the subject and blaze new trails by inventing your own processes. If you like to write, then publish articles on your subject to advertise your expertise. Speak at conferences to share your learning, or if speaking or writing isn’t your style then partner with someone else who can write or speak on your behalf (vendors love to do white papers on companies and people who use their products). In whatever way you choose, make your specialty known to the outside world.

While you’re focusing on your specialty, however, you need to always keep an eye on the demand for your talents. If you see the demand shifting then consider altering the focus of your specialty to move it in a different direction. You can still do things you like – you just might have to reposition your talents in the eyes of your customers and employers.

There are lots of mediocre people in businesses all over the world. If you want to be successful then you have to stand out, and the best way to stand out is to excel in an area of specialization. Pick an area of specialization that you’re good at and that you enjoy, and focus your efforts on becoming the best in that area. You’ll differentiate yourself from all those mediocre people, your career will take off, and you’ll be happier as well.

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