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?”
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 planted in dirt that’s too wet 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.