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Posted in: Self-management May 28th, 2012
65 Comments

We are in a drought. Not a metaphorical drought. That’s for city people. We are in a drought that is crop failure.

I’ve read a lot about the Dust Bowl during the Depression. My favorite book is a children’s book. And, let me just say that I mostly read children’s books. It makes sense, because I’ve been reading below grade level for my whole life.

I remember in fifth grade when I tested at the eighth grade reading level and I wanted to die every time I got pulled out for the gifted reading program because the reading was too difficult for me.

Now I know why. So much of literary fiction depends on the reader understanding the language of nonverbal communication. Like, in The Reader, I didn’t discover the protagonist was illiterate until the end. Too many of the clues were nonverbal.

So I have been comfortable reading below grade level forever. I’m a big fan of learning about history through children’s books. Here’s a totally great one about slavery. I’m not going to ruin it for you, but if you have a 6-10 year old you should just buy the book.

I learned about the Dust Bowl from Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse. In the book there is dust all over the house.  And it’s hard to imagine, but now I can. We had a thick coat of dust on our dining room table that I couldn’t remove for more than a day at a time, until it rained, yesterday.

During this time, the Farmer used his Bobcat to help me dig up a half-acre of the farm, around our house, and turn it into garden. I did raised beds, paths, tree stumps as jumping challenges through beds of Veronica.

I watered and watered and watered, and after three weeks of no rain I felt bad telling the Farmer that I had three shrubs die. His whole corn crop died.

The crop failure is painful, but I confess to have loved learning so much about corn from the situation. The Farmer had to call in a specialist for corn.

“I thought you are a specialist,” I said.

“Compared to you.”

“What do you specialize in?”

“Livestock.”

You know why I fell for the Farmer? He specializes. He knows what he’s good at and he’s passionate about it and he sticks to it.

I have told all of you about the research that makes it clear how important it is to specialize, but I often wonder if I’ve ever converted anyone. If you don’t specialize you’ll be unemployable, and if you don’t specialize your life will get boring.  For the most part, I think people don’t specialize because they are scared. But you’re kidding yourself if you think you have a choice.

1. Specialists garner special help from other people.
Here’s how a drought works. You call a corn specialist. The corn guy has sold seed for thirty years. In the comments you can talk about how the corn seed people are scoundrels and abusing the patent system to sue two-bit farmers who are completely innocent, but here I will tell you that I found the corn guy to be entrancing.

Because I love a specialist. Specialized knowledge is so interesting. He comes to the farm, walks onto the field with a pocket knife, digs up a corn sprout and looks. He can tell if the seed was White Charm Black Corners Shoulder Decorative Rectangular Bag Dangle Rounded wxq8USgnO because there’s smearing and he can tell if it was planted in dirt too dry because it doesn’t sprout at all. This sprout was okay, but the water ran dry.

I look. I want to ask questions. What does the smearing look like? Should the herbicide guy pay for the Farmer’s lost labor? But the Farmer only lets me come along if I don’t ask questions. I can ask questions later.

Specialists stick together and help each other. There is a mutual respect. A specialist is a hard worker, and committed and diligent and other specialists are encouraged to help because of that. Which means you get more access to a wider range of help if you specialize and risk needing a wider range of help.

2. Specializing is evidence of hard work.
I have had the book High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball in a pile in my kitchen for three months. I asked the publisher to send it to me because I thought the history of the fastball was so specific that the book couldn’t possibly be bad.

The pitcher, Amos Rusie, first showed promise when his dad discovered that his son could kill a rabbit with a stone. Amos Rusie threw the stone and hit the rabbit’s head every time. The dad was dumbfounded. But to the kid it was nothing. Because the kid had practiced so many hours, month after month, that it was the natural result of diligence.

Before he was the best fastball thrower, he was the best kill-a-rabbit-with-a-stone thrower.

3. Successful specialists don’t get in a rut.
If you know how to specialize once, you can do it again. This is true of Rusie. I have found it true in my own life, too. I was ranked #17 in US for beach volleyball. Once I left that, I knew how to apply that focus and work ethic to do the next thing in my life – Internet startups.

GQ has an article by Drew Magary about the process of Justin Bieber going from teen heartthrob to grown man. The article so fun to read, (“His rep says he’s five feet nine, but he looks about four feet four, maybe one hundred pounds,”)  but it’s a serious topic, really, the shift from one specialty to another, it’s clear from the article that Bieber got where he is with discipline and focus and he will get to the next thing that way as well.

4. Specialties sound crazy. That’s why they’re good.
Sometimes, when I’m coaching someone on how to figure out their best specialty, the person will suggest something like marketing. That is not a specialty. That is a field. Marketing in semiconductor companies is a specialty. Social media for semi-conductor companies is better. If you say that is your specialty, no semi-conductor company will doubt your ability to manage their Twitter feed.

My point is that the more specific the specialty the less you have to sell yourself as an expert.

I just talked to  Kathy McMahon who specializes in counseling men in the geology and oil industries who are overwhelmed by anxiety from Peak oil. Seriously. I tell you this, and you don’t wonder what her degree is, do you? Because this is such a crazy specialty that just the fact that she thought of it makes her an expert in it. (For the record, she’s a clinical psychologist.)

5. Specialists are so committed that they get respect immediately.
Robert Caro has been writing about Lyndon Johnson for his whole life. He just published his fourth book, and there’s an interview with him in Time magazine where it’s clear that he has so obsessively focused on his specialty that he has become a celebrity in his own right. For commitment.

The traits of a specialist are traits we admire: focus, hard work, diligence, creativity, commitment. So you are immediately appealing if you have an immediately understandable specialty.

6. Specializing is a safety net you can retreat to.
The drought has brought lots of trouble for the Farmer. He is deciding if he should go organic. He is deciding if he should plant buckwheat (to sell to honeymakers). He is a big experimenter. And to be honest, I am not nearly as big a risk taker as he is.

But he can do that because our ability to accept risk is commensurate with our own expertise. The Farmer is a national expert on hog genetics. He went to grad school for swine genetics, and he left because he realized he knew more about farming than the professors. He has been selecting pigs since he was a young boy, and he knows he will always be great at managing pigs no matter how far astray his other experiments take him.

This is why specializing makes life so interesting. It’s a solid home base for further personal growth.

So try it, really. Your life will get better in so many different ways if you can just see past the initial fear of picking that specialty for yourself.



Comments are closed
  • jade amp; bumbag Deep PIQUADRO Rucksack Good post, Penelope. I think it’s important to realize that you have to make choices, and specialization is crucial to your career. After all, if you don’t specialize and leanr a bit of this and a bit of that, it means your a dabbler. And no one hires dabblers.

    Posted by Suzanne on May 28, 2012 at 8:35 am | RICHMOND Black Handbag JOHN RICHMOND JOHN vqnx6E6W0w |

  • “If you know how to specialize once, you can do it again.”

    This is true, but it also points to the reason some people will never be good at specializing, because it’s an inherent reflection of character. Some people start a lot of things and never finish a single one, some people see each project right through to the bitter end. You can’t teach someone to be one or the other, I don’t think.

    Yes, if you’ve done it once, you can do it again. But doing it for the first time isn’t as easy as it sounds.

    Posted by bag MANDARINA DUCK Deep purple body Across qagHaSt on May 28, 2012 at 8:35 am | permalink |

  • oops *learn and you’re = morning typing without coffee :(

    Posted by Suzanne on May 28, 2012 at 8:36 am | permalink |

  • This reminds me of some trends at work right now. Our sales teams often talk about developing better focus – paring the account lists to the few that can really make a difference. It sounds risky because you are putting more eggs in fewer baskets (or all of them in one).

    BUT if you take risks intelligently it really pays off. You need to understand the situation enough to pick customers that can or will value what you have to sell (whether it’s engineering services, control systems, or SEO expertise). If it works for selling products, I think it should work for selling the value of a person/professional.

    Posted by EngineerChic on May 28, 2012 at 9:14 am | permalink |

  • Great post, Penelope. Funny how one might not necessarily realize she has a speciality because she’s so immersed in it. I’m trying to remind myself not to assume people know what I’m talking about…and turn my impatience into a business.
    http://kck.st/JHpsTC

    Posted by manoush zomorodi on May 28, 2012 at 9:34 am | permalink |

  • How do you decide what to special in? Maybe that should be a topic.

    I’m a self-employed graphic designer and follow Ilise Benun’s Marketing Mentor http://www.marketing-mentor.com/ She’s adamant on choosing a specialty target market and as I strive to follow her advice, I struggle in narrowing my focus. Should I design for the wine industry? The home design industry? The alternative energy industry? I’m interested in so many things and my attention span is so very short.

    Posted by avantgarde on May 28, 2012 at 10:10 am | permalink |

    • Often the specialty comes from circumstances and a little luck. For example, if you do one wine site, that you just happen to land the contract for, you can pitch another wine company and say you specialize in wine companies, and you can send them the link to the wine site you did. Once you’ve done this four times, you really are a specialist – I mean, how many designers have done four wine sites?

      Once you are a specialist, go for the biggest, most high-profile example of that type of project. Once you have that, then you can expand, like, you can say you help companies launch beverages online. That’s a better specialty than wine.

      A lot of finding your specialty is being open to the kind of work that comes your way.

      bumbag Deep jade amp; Rucksack PIQUADRO You can be certain that I never set out to be an expert on career advice. I wanted to be something much more glamourous with my life. But this is what came my way, so I turned it into something that’s great for me.

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      Posted by Penelope Trunk on May 28, 2012 at 7:25 pm | permalink |

      • Thank you!

        Posted by Danny on May 30, 2012 at 4:19 pm | permalink |

      • This is true. I’m a specialist in that I am a telecom engineer for the financial sector. Trading floors have a very unique telecom infrastructure, and becoming a specialist in this field wasn’t something I chose on purpose. I started to become familiar with the technology and noticed that it was only exposed to a small group of individuals. I studied long and hard and made many sacrifices to make my way into that small group, and it has been the best thing to happen for my career. When someone is looking for something specific, it is easy to get the job when you have focused on exactly what they are looking to find. When your skills are more general, you blend in and become indistinct from other candidates.

        Posted by David on May 31, 2012 at 7:46 am | permalink |

    • Avantgarde & Penelope, there’s a post published today over at Brainpickings by Maria Popova ( http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/05/29/get-dressed-seymour-chwast/ ) that I think both of you may like.

      Posted by Mark W. on May 29, 2012 at 8:55 am | permalink |

  • This is a great article and very true. I worked at a graphic design firm that did branding and marketing for anyone who walked in the door. Six years ago they specialized down to providing a social media program for 18-25 years olds for credit union clients only—and have had huge success because of it. Being able to focus on one thing in order to do it very well has a satisfying freedom to it.

    Posted by Nalacircular Conkca 'Rolla' London body tan leather Dark bag cross qfPvf on May 28, 2012 at 10:22 am | permalink |

  • Such a great topic! I fell into my job as a social media specialist accidently when I started becoming friends with lots of bloggers. Over the past few years people knew that I worked with mom bloggers a lot and were reference me as a “mom blogger expert.” It felt too narrow and men in the industry always looked at me funny, like I had a fake specialty.

    After that, I started focusing on building relationships in other blogging niches so I can now say that I specialize in “blogger relations” which appears to be me much more exciting to other people and spark more conversation and interest.

    As a millennial, I totally get why people are scared to specialize. All through school, we are warned about factory jobs where you will have to do one repetitive task for 20 years. Specializing sounds boring and limiting.

    I think teaching kids how to specialize and re-frame their specialties should be a required class in college. Maybe you could teach it?

    Posted by Cassie Boorn on May 28, 2012 at 10:51 am | permalink |

  • Specializing can definitely be a scary proposition.
    As far as freelancing goes…

    The first thought most people have is of ALL that business they’d be turning away by being too specific. If you’re so busy with clients that you don’t have time to think, that’s one thing. Chances are that’s not the case.

    When you’re not specific enough, it can show as a lack of commitment. It can show as a lack of expertise in all the fields you cover. It doesn’t command confidence.

    You want to be the person that really “gets” the needs and concerns of the client, not the “I’ll detail your car and walk your dog too!” person. Having to be different things to different people really clouds your presentation. Getting specific narrows the scope of your marketing and copy so you can tailor it more finely for your target customer.

    You also have to be sure that your niche:
    A) Wants your service
    B) Can pay for it
    C) Will pay for it

    Posted by David Santy on May 28, 2012 at 12:35 pm | permalink |

    • This is great advice. I’m really struck by how many people have a good sense of the process they used to specialize. This makes me think that you really have to focus and have deliberate behavior in order to specialize. It doesn’t just happen.

      Penelope

      Posted by Penelope Trunk on June 1, 2012 at 1:39 am | Women's Double Hidden Snap Wallet Closure Black Fold rPwrg |

      • I am glad to read this comment because I have a Phd and am therefore painfully aware that what you specialize in is crucial. And I am confused because I was thinking the ability to adapt, to be a jack of all trades, was key to surging the ever changing demands of the contemporary economy

        Posted by jennifer on June 6, 2012 at 11:30 pm | permalink |

  • this is an interesting one as I’ve just been reading Buckminster Fuller’s book: ‘Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth’ and one of his lines being that over-specialisation is a cause for problems . .. lots to think about!

    We are in drought here too.

    Amelia.x

    Posted by Amelia on May 28, 2012 at 1:29 pm | permalink |

  • “Specialists stick together and help each other.”

    That is not the case in private industry where specialists are often doing research that require patents & the other “specialists” are at competing companies trying to also build the “better mousetrap” & get the patent & get the product to the market first. Think about pharmaceutical companies & those much-hated seed companies you wrote about.

    All the years of research that went into designing pest or weed resistant seeds & medications to treat depression, for example, are kept very “secret” from others specilizing in the same arena due to this race to be the first to have a better product out of the pipeline & that pipeline can take 7-10 years or longer w/many patents required to even protect the research while it is in various stages of “discovery.”

    Scientific meetings of these specialists from competing companies have to have their internal patent attorneys go through any presentation a research scientist is going to present to make sure no recently discovered research is inadvertently leaked out.

    The scientist may also have to give the presentation to the attorneys & other scientists w/in the company to have a mock Q & A to prepare the presenter for leading questions from competing companies’ scientists.

    Then in academia there is also the pressure of “publish or perish” so a law prof who specializes in white collar crime, for example, needs to keep his/her unpublished law journal article close to the vest to keep the article’s unique take on a certain topic or recent court ruling “unique” or it won’t be accepted for publication.

    Posted by Sue on May 28, 2012 at 2:20 pm | permalink |

  • Sorry, but I disagree. As other respondents have pointed out, there should be a market for (or you should be able to create a market for) your specialty; ask the un- and under-employed middle managers who specialized in technologies that are long-gone.

    With a job market as soft as this one, exacerbated by cooling markets in China and Russia, a broad range of abilities (specialties)is advantageous. Unfortunately, one must be expert in all of them.

    Anyway, may rain come your way soon.

    Nancy

    Posted by Nancy on May 28, 2012 at 2:50 pm | permalink |

    • Yes, but there’s a difference between having a broad range of expertise and a broad range of specialties.

      If you’re a applying for a job at an accounting firm but you also happen to be a highly skilled woodworker, you’re not going to show the hiring manager how great you are at building colonial era style furniture.

      Posted by David Santy on May 28, 2012 at 4:02 pm | permalink |

      • Can a middle-manager be a specialist? Aren’t specialists the “doers” of the thing, not the “managers” of it?

        I say this because facing unemployment last summer I discovered that there is a job market for Old Farts who know out-of-date technologies.

        I’m not saying that depending on those skills is a good strategy for the young, but it appears that COBOL and mainframe technology has not quite dropped off the face of the earth. The thing is that the demand is for people that know how to do it, not for those who manage people who do it.

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        Posted by GingerR on May 28, 2012 at 4:50 pm | permalink |

        • This month’s Harvard Business Review has an article on how to move senior managers into executive management. And the basic assumption in the article is that to get to senior management the person had to specialize and to be an executive they have to go beyond their specialty.

          But what really struck me about the article is that there is no discussion that you have to specialize to get to senior management. It’s just a given that everyone reading the article knows that.

          Penelope

          Posted by Penelope Trunk on May 28, 2012 at 5:57 pm | permalink |

  • hmmmm…what’s my specialty…

    perhaps that’s what I’ll discover while writing my blog.

    instead of being good at several things, perhaps there’s one thing that I could be really great at.

    i see lots of rain in your future (fingers crossed)

    Posted by CRLife on May 28, 2012 at 4:27 pm | permalink |

  • The Time magazine article on Robert Caro is only available to magazine subscribers. I think a better link would be the two hours of questions and answers he did recently on the C-Span show “Q and A”.

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    Posted by Matthew on May 28, 2012 at 4:40 pm | permalink |

    • Yeah. You’re right. I didn’t notice because I subscribe. But you know what? Time magazine stinks for not allowing us to link to their articles. I’m not writing about them any more. I’m too annoyed.

      Penelope

      Posted by Penelope Trunk on May 28, 2012 at 5:58 pm | permalink |

    • Matthew, I didn’t notice that the Time magazine link was only available to subscribers because I saw the C-Span Q&A interview when it aired so I’m glad you provided the link.
      Brian Lamb, the host who does the interviewing for the program, has done a lot of great interviews and I have to say he’s my favorite interviewer. I consider interviewing to be his specialty.

      Posted by Mark W. on May 28, 2012 at 7:24 pm | permalink |

  • Raining like crazy here in Madison. Hope you’re getting rain at the farm. Doesn’t look like it’s going to last long though:
    http://classic.wunderground.com/radar/mixedcomposite.asp?region=a4&size=2x&ID=MKX19

    Posted by David Santy on May 28, 2012 at 5:29 pm | permalink |

  • PIQUADRO Rucksack Deep amp; bumbag jade You are just amazing. So easy to read! I hang on every word, pt. sorry for the gush. I’m allowed once every few years.

    Posted by Jenx67 on May 28, 2012 at 7:19 pm | permalink |

  • More true for US than other countries & we all know the US business model is becoming irrelevant. Chinese generally specialize in 1 area of engineering, but their model of 1 man businesses requires them to know enough about other areas to create complete products. A single person will design the artificial intelligence on a weapon, but look up the inertial guidance online & download the e-commerce software.

    Posted by Heroine Worshiper on May 28, 2012 at 7:51 pm | permalink |

  • I specialize in an arcane area of computer systems management. It becomes a bit claustrophobic after a while and can lend itself to a cul-de-sac/dead-end decision like Godin describes.

    Posted by Dave on May 28, 2012 at 7:59 pm | permalink |

  • This is a good post and very timely since I am at the stage in my career where I’ve started to lose focus. It did make me remember something an old lecturer said to us one time: If you are good at everything, you are good at nothing.

    So many of us are generalists these days and some would even argue that to survive in the new economy one needs to be a generalist. As a creative person, I like the idea of that, because that means that you try many things and do many things and it never gets boring. A Swiss Army knife.

    Yet at the same time specialising rings true to me because even as we try to do things that are interesting, what matters even more is engagement, and the only way you can get that is by really drilling deep – to specialise, in other words. That is where meaning is, granted of course, that you specialise in something that you do not completely dislike.

    Posted by YJ on May 29, 2012 at 2:06 am | permalink |

  • Thank you, Penelope. What are your thoughts on a person specializing in more than one thing? For the past 20 years, I’ve specialized in a) facilitating executive teams of large companies in business planning and b) modelling the communication/sales skills and language of high performers. There are small areas of overlap, but in the main, they are very different. Both remain vibrant and lucrative.

    Best regards,
    Robin
    @robindickinson

    Posted by Robin Dickinson on May 29, 2012 at 5:00 am | permalink |

    • Both are really vague things that you are offering. Which tells me that you are selling stuff based on who you know. You could have a stronger brand, that markets your services beyond the people you know, if you combine your offering into one, unique specialty.

      If you are unique people remember you. The stuff you offer is not unique enough for anyone to remember you by, I don’t think.

      You say both areas are “vibrant and lucrative” which certainly is true. But they are most lucrative to people who are clearly specialized and differentiated within those areas. It’s like, the movie industry is lucrative. But if you don’t specialize in some sort of movie then you have a hard time getting reliable, consistently interesting work, over a long period of time.

      Penelope

      Posted by Penelope Trunk on May 29, 2012 at 10:31 am | permalink |

  • You know which fictional character is a model for specializing? Batman. He specializes in everything.

    Love this post Penelope. Your blog have been giving me confidence in my ongoing career journey for several years now. Thank you. Now I’m going to figure out what my specialty is.

    Posted by Joe Wright on May 29, 2012 at 10:47 am | permalink |

    • Let’s not get started with the geek Aspies in Penelope’s readership. :)

      Batman’s specialty is. . . he’s a crazy loon who hauls in crazier loons. :D

      Posted by Pete on May 31, 2012 at 11:48 pm | permalink |

  • Very compelling and definately makes me reconsider being a ‘generalist.’ But HOW to figure out what your speciality is or should be? How do you do that exactly?

    Posted by beth on May 29, 2012 at 12:19 pm | permalink |

    • You have to pay attention. Get out there and follow the wind at first and do anything that catches your fancy. You will find that the specialty finds you if you are willing to let it. Something you are doing will click and be well received without huge amounts of effort on you part.

      Vague, yes, but I don’t think there is any way to have that aha moment without a lot of experimentation, and comparing results of the different things you try.

      Posted by Helen W on May 29, 2012 at 1:04 pm | permalink |

    • I found mine by accident – but it was because an astute observer thought it would fit me well. If you have hobbies that you are good at – what qualities make you good at it? Natural talents you overlook or discount? Intersect those with a demand for services or expertise.

      Posted by Dave on May 29, 2012 at 1:19 pm | permalink |

    • Helen & Dave – those are both good points. Ive certainly done a ton of experimenting – so its probably time for some contemplation.

      I just read this article on WSJ where top CEOs talk about what’s most important for advancing their career. One thing I have done and they also recommend is taking opportunities for lateral moves to gain more experience.

      Here is an excerpt: Along the career path, the CEOs say, pursue new skills relentlessly. Change jobs after you’ve mastered the current one. Be willing to tack sideways on the career track, or even backward, to pick up key expertise or command a business unit. Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303879604577410520511235252.html?mod=rss_Today%27s_Most_Popular

      jade bumbag Rucksack Deep amp; PIQUADRO But I wonder if lateral career moves to broaden skills and experience start you down the road to generalization.

      Posted by beth on May 29, 2012 at 2:18 pm | permalink |

      • I knew an engineer that took various positions in a manufacturing plant plant over a period of years. Most assumed he was self-grooming for management. Nope- he was learning how to tune entire production facilities. He specializes in tuning performance of complex manufacturing systems.

        Posted by Dave on May 29, 2012 at 7:16 pm | SANDQVIST Blue Blue SANDQVIST KIM KIM Blue KIM SANDQVIST qI1wEU |

  • You know you are a specialist when you tell a stranger at a party what you do and they say, “I had no idea there was a career like that.”

    Posted by Leslie on May 29, 2012 at 12:51 pm | permalink |

    • Yeah. Ideally, it’s about being the only one who does that in your particular corner of spacetime.

      Posted by gradalis on May 29, 2012 at 6:36 pm | permalink |

  • As I sat looking at my empty business account after a very un-busy May, I thought I would check in here at your blog Penelope as it always inspires me somehow. Once again, you wrote something that speaks directly to me somehow. I have been dipping my toe in many pools to see what sticks and what will make me the most money for the least effort. So far there has been a clear frontrunner that obviously does far better for me than other things I became involved in since I started my business a year and a half ago. And it is so funny that it relates to one particular industry that I am selling to and where my products do very well, almost in a head scratching type of way. I have been so scared to laser focus on this and let other things go because as you said, it is putting too many eggs in one basket. But what I have been neglecting to think about is that those other baskets are not making me money and in fact are COSTING me.

    Thank you so much AGAIN for steering me in the right direction.

    It is almost like some divine being is sending me to this blog when I need some type of specific advice ha ha!

    Posted by Helen W on May 29, 2012 at 12:57 pm | permalink |

    • What Helen W said! I have that divine intervention thing going on too. I won’t go on as Helen expressed it brilliantly. Just thanks so much. I love the way you write to. Crystal clear.

      Posted by Bernie on May 30, 2012 at 11:20 am | permalink |

  • Great post Penelope! My problem is that I just can’t choose between my interests and I’m so early in my career that I just have to apply to whatever’s out there and then that will have to become my specialisation.

    Posted by DJM on May 29, 2012 at 7:41 pm | permalink |

  • wow, you’ve hit the nail on the head! I just wish I knew this in college, not 15 yrs later. I’m a jack of trades, master of none, and it’s hard to a) figure out what I want to do and b) it’s hard to sell myself in interviews (esp with a diversified past work experience).

    Great post!

    Posted by annie on May 29, 2012 at 11:13 pm | permalink |

    • Me too! 15 years in the workforce and have found myself in the same jack of all trade category. that gets harder to uphold the longer you work and the more money you want to earn.

      I am starting to become a glorified project manager and am not sure what to do next. Have you??

      As far as justifying resume its all about looking at your history and trying to find some sort of common thread that also ties to the position you want. I have multiple versions of my resume each that list and highlight different things!

      Posted by beth on May 30, 2012 at 11:51 am | permalink |

  • Given your husband’s specialty in raising pigs, what does he think about this kind of treatment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=bNY4Fjsdft4#!

    Posted by Jean on May 30, 2012 at 7:48 pm | permalink |

  • Say you are very young in your career, not even finished one year of work. Then you can’t really have a specialty because you don’t have enough experience right?

    In that case, are there some things you should do today to get to a point where you can specialize at a later time?

    Does specialization come from experience or do you build on various experiences to gain specialty? Both?

    Posted by Bhav on May 30, 2012 at 8:04 pm | permalink |

    • Great question. The important thing to do at the beginning of your career is to try lots of stuff. This will teach you what you are good at, but also, what people will value you for. Often stuff we know we are good at is not what people want to pay for. Or vice versa.

      The beginning of your career should be a time when you are learning really fast. And that learning will morph into a specialty if you take enough risks to get more and more narrow as you go through your experiments.

      Penelope

      Posted by Penelope Trunk on June 1, 2012 at 1:44 am | permalink |

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  • Penelope,

    Your viewpoint on being a specialist is so right. What about the idea of tying multiple specialties together?

    Do you think this could create some strong competitive advantages for someone or is it just confusing and dilutive?

    -Aaron

    Posted by Aaron McDaniel on May 31, 2012 at 2:45 am | permalink |

  • How does your positive attitude towards specialization reconcile with your disdain for graduate degrees?

    Does it depend on how relevant your specialization is? On knowledge vs. skills?

    I’m finishing up a PhD in biological sciences and definitely feel TOO specialized, or maybe just in a poor fitting specialization.

    Posted by Jessica on May 31, 2012 at 6:54 pm | permalink |

    • Well, this post is about work. So the point is to specialize in something that people will pay you for. We are all specialized in masturbating, right? We are better at it for ourselves than anyone else. But it doesn’t pay. So it’s irrelevant. Same with most graduate programs.

      Penelope

      Posted by Penelope Trunk on June 1, 2012 at 1:40 am | permalink |

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        Very weird, P! I guess you could use your specialization at masturbation in the pornography industry.

        Posted by Sue on June 11, 2012 at 9:55 pm | permalink |

      • Also, you think “most” graduate programs don’t lead to jobs that are fulfilling, interesting & well-paying?

        I guess my family must be just “lucky” as my husband’s Ph.D. has led to a fantastic research job in private industry for the last 27 years.

        His brother’s Ph.D. has allowed him to have a highly successful career in academia–doing research, mentoring grad students, teaching & authoring scientific articles. Plus, he gets to travel the world doing his research (very specialized field).

        My son’s graduate degree from Stanford has afforded him a fantastic career & quality of life in the Bay Area.

        My daughter practiced law for 7 years or so before deciding to pursue her passion of teaching. Now she is using her law degree in the teaching profession & so enjoys the interaction w/the “young” (she is 36) aspiring attorneys.

        So I must respectfully protest your sweeping generalization about graduate degree programs.

        Posted by Sue on June 11, 2012 at 10:22 pm | permalink |

        • Those people you mention went to graduate school when it was cheaper and the job prospects were better. Penelope’s advice is geared towards young people today considering graduate school.

          Posted by David Santy on June 11, 2012 at 10:47 pm | permalink |

          • My kids went to graduate school & law school on academic scholarships (full rides plus living stipends).

            My son-in-law paid for his law school w/student loans, but he just opened his own firm w/another partner from his previous firm & is doing very well in his specialized field of law.

            Most, if not all, getting their Ph.D in the scientific field apply for & get grants from the NSF & my husband also was a TA in grad school (I worked at a grocery store as I got discounts on food, flexible hours & good pay at the same time while going to under-grad part-time) & we were raising our first child (the law prof).

            After my husband got his Ph.D in 4 years (was allowed to bypass getting a Masters, which saved a lot of time), he did a post-doc for 1.5 years (salary is low, but we are very good at budgeting; and the experience was invaluable for his getting great job offers).

            His company is hiring now, but mostly Ph.D-level applicants are taken seriously for research positions.

            So I’d say grad school is not as expensive as you indicate. Who pays out-of-pocket to get their Ph.D? Try a poll on that!

            And, seriously, companies aren’t hiring the cream of the crop?

            And what about all the entrepreneurs getting funded on web sites like kickstarter? One I invested in just reached his goal (well, 2 young men in their 20’s invented the product) & shipped the product just in time for holiday gifts (Mason-Jar Martini Shaker).

            Or check out all the creativity at the site Thrillist. Not hiring? Make your own job w/what you love or have created.

            Paid to travel? Matador, of course.

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            Get some advice from all sorts of smart, innovative specialists at Quora.

            Posted by Sue on November 4, 2012 at 8:30 am | permalink |

  • I have combined the advice in this post about specializing with the next post, “Work for Free.” I have always been successful at work by specializing, and my current job is no exception. It came my way accidentally, it was a good opportunity, I needed a job. I hunkered down and learned all about it, and now I have a really good specialty that will pay the bills. My next goal is the free goal. I want to work for free on something I enjoy, and is fun and fulfilling in a way my job won’t be (hint I work in I.T.). By the way, this is another one of your lessons Penelope (e.g. do what you love separate from your job, and don’t expect to love your job). So see, I have been paying attention.

    Posted by Rebecca on June 1, 2012 at 7:48 am | permalink |

  • Great post! I came across it on Twitter somewhere. :)

    I definitely need to work on this. I am a dabbler, but do nothing well. I am a SAHM, that is just beginning to see the value in trying to make money from home. I don’t get me wrong, I loved seeing other people do it, but have always been afraid that I couldn’t do it.
    Now to figure out what to specialize in …

    Posted by Johanna on June 4, 2012 at 5:41 am | permalink |

  • One day a boy walked into my office and sat down, well he didn’t really sit down, he sort of hurled himself onto my couch. As a psychotherapist,  I was used to seeing individuals in pain, but this kid was different. He wouldn’t look at me, wouldn’t speak and was only in my office because he had been found crumpled in the lunchroom, wailing and rocking. As he sat and I looked beyond him so as not to demand his gaze, I began to hear classical music play somewhere deep within. After an hour, he left wordlessly. I arranged with his teachers to have him brought back to my office the next day at the same hour. Again, out of the silence, the music began to play… After nearly a year of silence, he began to speak and soon after I discovered in the quiet hours of the night he would sneak under his covers with a flashlight to write and write and write. Sentences upon sentences, page after page, secretly printing and binding his own novels. Hiding his work, he lived in fear that his father may once again beat him for not finishing his homework.  This is when I realized my specialty was to be found in the silence.

    Posted by Judy Jackson on June 5, 2012 at 11:39 pm | permalink |

  • comparing this to your post about graduate school, i am wondering how you see specializing as unaccomplished by graduate work?

    of course i value applied knoweldge, and frankly know myself to be a better worker than a student (this is generally a result of my difficulties forcing myself to commit and pay my due dilligence) but i am finding (through my job hunting) that graduate school is often a top requirement. mainly for the specialization that it encourages…

    Posted by allison on June 11, 2012 at 9:03 pm | permalink |

  • amp; PIQUADRO bumbag jade Rucksack Deep

    “I have told all of you about the research that makes it clear how important it is to specialize, but I often wonder if I’ve ever converted anyone.”

    You’ve influenced me, for sure. Heavily! In fact, without your advice I would have wasted a lot of time figuring out that it’s OK to be completely focused on the ONE thing I’m brilliant at and just let everything else go. And to totally own it. I was way too close to see it — or validate it — for myself!

    Thanks for another great post. ;)

    Posted by Deborah Hymes on June 12, 2012 at 10:11 pm | permalink |

  • very nice comments

    Posted by habertesi on June 22, 2012 at 10:32 am | permalink |

  • DYSLEXIC CANDIDATES SURELY HAVE A RIGHT TO SPECIALIZE IN THEIR FAVOURITE SUBJECTS.

    Posted by satyajay mandal on November 4, 2012 at 6:26 am | permalink |

Penelope Trunk

founded four startups. Her most recent is Quistic. She has appeared on CNN, NPR and the BBC. She lives on a farm in Wisconsin and homeschools her sons. More»

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Advance your career. Advance your life.

Quistic is my newest startup, and it’s a place to find online courses that will help you in your career.

You can sign up for a live course that will happen in the near future or you can buy an on-demand course that is recorded so you can watch it any time.

If you have questions about which course is right for you feel free to send an email to penelope@quistic.com and I’ll help you choose.

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