I spent two hours this week writing an article about autism. My son was diagnosed with autism and I could write five hundred pages about dealing with the diagnosis. But then I reminded myself about specializing. About focus. Specialists get a lot of good things in this world, and people who dabble in everything get nothing.
Dabbling is fine, to a point. I mean, you have to dabble to figure out what you want to be a specialist in. But let’s be real. I write a career column. I have a book about careers coming out. I speak at universities about careers. I am not an autism writer.
So I trashed the autism article. Because it’s not going to help my career in a focused way. Sure, it might help in a haphazard way, the way playing basketball at the park helps your career because you never know what will come of anything. But the only way to reach focused career goals is to have focused efforts.
I stick to writing about careers because specialization is the ticket to freedom from boring and inflexible work. Let’s say you want to have every other Wednesday off to go to a yoga class. If you are a specialist who would be hard to replace, your boss will be more likely to say yes than if five hundred entry-level people can do what you do.
The more you need, the more this rule applies. Moving in and out of the workforce is easier once you’ve established that you’re great at a specific thing. And entrepreneurship is easier as specialist, too, because one of best ways to gauge aptitude is if that person has a strong knowledge base and network in the field of the proposed business.
You don’t have to specialize right away, but you should see your work path as a quest for specialization. View random corporate jobs as possible apprenticeships. You don't need to know what you’ll specialize in, but you need to be open to it when it comes. Specialization often creeps up on you, like a friend who you never expected to turn out to be a friend.
When I first started writing columns, I had no idea that I would write about careers. I was hired to “write about what it’s like to be a female executive.” I tried lots of different types of columns. I wrote about software development (my specialty at the time). I wrote about consumer products (definitely not my specialty). Those columns flopped, and so did most of my columns that were not, in some way, about careers. I learned by trial and error that I was a career writer.
It is always scary to specialize because there are so many jobs that become out of your focus. But there is good research to show that you will have an easier time staying employed if you specialize.
Specialization is also scary because we think we need to address all aspects of our personality with our work. But no work can do that. Autism, for example, is important to me right now, but it doesn’t need to be important in my work. In fact, work is sometimes a nice break from that aspect of my life.
My son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a type of autism that occurs when someone has a very high IQ but a large deficit in social skills. His teachers taught him a way to leverage his specialty — memorizing — to learn rules for socializing that other people know intuitively.
I learned many lessons from watching him do that. One is that once you have a specialty, you can leverage it to add things that are not necessarily your specialty, but you still want to have them in your life. In that way, a specialized path is one of the most diverse and rewarding paths you can choose.