Specialist or generalist?
A neighbor’s teenage son, Jayden, has become my surrogate grandson after about a year of getting paid for walking our dog, Colette, while my once-impaired hips minimized my mobility. I’m healed, but the dog-walking gig continues, and we chat for several minutes three nights a week before The Walk.
Jayden is smart and athletic, and he became the second-string quarterback on the local high school junior varsity football team, likely to be the starter next year. He did well at the basketball try-outs that followed the football season, yet he was not selected for the team, as the coaches seemed to choose for height over most other qualities. When my younger son, Phil, faced this problem himself decades ago, I encouraged him to work on his jumping ability, already impressive, and assured him he was likely to grow taller, too. That all worked out as hoped and predicted, and Phil was one of the best players on their senior-year championship team.
I had discouraged Phil from going out for the football team. One reason was the risk of injury, another the value of specializing in basketball rather than pursuing other sports.
What to advise Jayden, who preferred football but also liked basketball?
We discussed two broad strategies, sometimes referred to as “the hedgehog and the fox.” The hedgehog (or “groundhog”) is a master at tunnel building, and this one exceptional talent serves him well. The fox has no such specialty but is clever in many ways, a mixed strategy, and it serves him well.
Specialization can be a winning strategy if you can perfect it. In much of human endeavor, the top 1% are highly rewarded and tend to be specialists. If you have a rare and desired talent, make the most of it.
“Jack of all trades, master of none” denigrates the person with many skills but no strong specialty, yet such broadly talented people are needed and rewarded in the running of various enterprises, where the narrow specialist might be lost.
I told Jayden that this relates to the two limiting evolutionary strategies: having many offspring and giving each little support versus having few offspring and providing each much support. These strategies reflect an evolution from the one-celled through many intermediaries, including insects and fish to birds and mammals and humankind. Societies, too, benefit from heavy, individualized investment, reflected in few children per family on average.
So, if you have a particular and valuable talent, consider developing it fully, be a hedgehog.
Where you lack a particular advantage, treat your opportunities more like lottery tickets, acquire many useful skills, be a fox.