I write a lot about the importance of specializing in your career. The bottom line is that if you are great at what you do, you will get better hours, better pay, and more flexibility in how you run your life. But no one is great at everything.

Specializing means figuring out what you don’t do. If you are a programmer, you can’t be great at hardware and software. If you are in marketing, you won’t be great at marketing to kids and business-to-business marketing. You need to know your niche if you want to be great.

But I receive tons of mail from people arguing that if you specialize, you run the risk of being great in an area that no one hires for anymore. This is true. Especially now, when the workplace is changing so quickly. The solution to this problem is that everyone, no matter what their career, must be not only a specialist, but a trend spotter as well.

For a good look at how people become trend spotters in order to stay relevant in their field, check out the new book, Remember Me: A Lively Tour of the New American Way of Death, by Lisa Takeuchi Cullen. The book is filled with characters like Lou Stellato, a sort of a futurist of funeral directors, who declares, “Funeral service as we know it is over.”

Cullen’s book explains the issues of the shifting funeral industry, and incidentally, the process that individuals take to shift their careers so as not to get left behind. This is a great lesson in specializing because the funeral information is hilarious (for example Costco breaking the casket monopoly) and shocking (people turning their loved ones into diamonds – yes, there’s a new process…).

The biggest problem for funeral directors is that by 2025 most funerals will not involve caskets. This means no big profit from the panic of a last minute, overpriced casket. No profit from renting a room for a viewing. In fact, there is the possibility that most funerals could bypass the funeral home altogether.

But something happened after 9/11. People needed to hold funerals without having any part of the body to bury. And, since many of the dead were very young and well-connected in the community, the funerals included literally thousands of people. So funeral directors became event planners.

And then, the smart funeral directors noticed that if they honed their event planning skills then they would be useful even as the industry shifts away from casket-centered funerals.

Your industry is like this one. Whatever industry you’re in is shifting because all aspects of culture and business are shifting. These funeral directors are not happy about having to change, but they face the need head on and they figure out, in the funeral world, how they can be specialists in a way that will keep them relevant to their customers.

Remember Me shows that there are many ways to adapt to change, and you only need to find one that works. For example, not everyone is abandoning the casket world. Some are adapting it – Goliath Casket Co. is making caskets to fit the obese (at least one overweight body was squeezed into a standard-sized casket with a shoehorn.) And Batesville offers low-cost wood veneer alternatives (positively revolutionary for the price-gouging industry). And to address the fact that more people are choosing cremation, some funeral directors are focusing on audio add-ons, a one casket company partnered with Nambe – the renowned purveyor of wedding registry silver — to create coffee-table quality containers for cremains.

To become a specialist in your field takes a little vision and a little luck. Usually one’s specialty comes by dint of the opportunities that present themselves. The way I got to be a career writer is a process of finding a specialty. I started writing fiction, but I was not that great at it. I realized the only thing I was getting paid good money for was business writing. And within that field, I found that the way I really stood out was in my approach to writing about careers.

Trend spotting takes diligent information gathering with an open mind, but there’s big payoff in having a relevant, specialized career. I always aim for a dynamic, innovative career like one of those trend-spotting funeral directors, and you should, too.

9 replies
  1. Adam Gordon
    Adam Gordon says:

    I know this wasn’t the gist or point of your article at all, but I felt I should point it out anyway – not like you didn’t know anyway…most funeral homes (at least the ones in major cities) are now owned and operated by large corprations and are no longer family-owned. When my mom died 2 years ago, we used the same funeral home we had used for her parents – and wow had they changed. I remember sitting in the conference room with my uncle, my mom’s sister, and going over the pricing options with the rep from the funeral home and all I can say is OUCH.

    My mom wanted to be cremated, so buying a casket wasn’t necessary, however we could rent one for a nominal fee of $2000 (the pine box was $900). Then there’s all these other fees, room rental, cremation, mortician, official copies of the death certificate… I mean we paid for it out of her estate, but the final damage was around $5500.

    The funeral home business might be changing/adapting, but it’s still a business and they are still [very] profit-motivated.

    -adam

  2. Ben Casnocha
    Ben Casnocha says:

    Penelope,

    I actually would disagree with a little. I think generalists are going to be more in demand in the coming years because so much of business and life is about seeing the intersection of ideas, or “thinking at the border” as I’ve put on my blog. Moreover, working with people from different industries and countries is going to be critical.

    Specialization is important in the same way that vocational schools are important. They work for some people, but usually not people at the top of corporate America.

    I think of the letter “T”. People need to be deep in one thing, and broad and “wide” in other fields.

  3. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    I agree with your T idea, Ben. I like that way of describing it.

    At the very top, you’re right, you have to be a generalist. I am not sure how many people would really want to be there, though. I mean, right now you have to give up so much of your personal life to be at the very top. Hopefully that will change.

    I’m not sure about this, but maybe it is true that for people who want intellectually interesting jobs today, the more you want to hold on to your personal life, the more you have to specialize.

    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      I found this post to be very interesting. I understand the generalist and specialist viewpoints a little better now after reading Ben’s comment, your comment, and your career path. Your career path started with writing(a generalized subject area) which requires specialization in order to be a star performer. My career path started with a degree in ceramic engineering in the ceramic industry (a relatively niche industry). I switched over to the defense aerospace industry after six years in a ceramic engineering capacity. It became necessary for me to become a generalist in many ways to understand other engineering disciplines and their lingo in order to understand how my efforts fit into complex and varied systems. I think your career has taken you in a generalist direction to understand how your writing fits in new social media applications even though it is still career writing. As you said, the important thing to keep in mind is to watch trends in your industry and your own career.

  4. Sarah Dillon
    Sarah Dillon says:

    Well said Penelope. Specialising definitely offers people a way of (affording to) hold down an intellectually interesting job, while also having a personal life. People are realising this as ever increasing numbers of highly educated and experienced professionals make the conscious decision to opt out of the corporate world. I guess we’re realising that being at the top of corporate America’s “T” isn’t necessarily worth aspiring to.

    As a result of this shift, generalists will indeed become more and more in demand over the coming years!

  5. Nancy Dotel
    Nancy Dotel says:

    Well I’am 53 yrs old i just got a high school diploma and yes I did not listen to my parents when they urge me to study, my children are grown and I don’t know which path to choose. I have given some thought to Billing and coding, but at this age I donot want to be tied down all day to a computer so I have always liked the funeral business. Please gime some insights on the different fields in this career. would really appreciated. thank you

  6. Jill
    Jill says:

    Adam – actually the majority of funeral homes in the country are still privately/family owned and operated. As for the pricing/gouging, the mark up on items really isn’t as high as everyone thinks. I’ve been in this industry over 12 years, and it’s very annoying when people think that all we do is take advantage of them. Do you go to the car dealership expecting to pay the same price that the dealer did? Do you go to a restaurant or department store and expect to pay whole sale prices? No, you don’t. The funeral BUSINESS is no different.

  7. Jill
    Jill says:

    Adam – actually the majority of funeral homes in the country are still privately/family owned and operated. As for the pricing/gouging, the mark up on items really isn’t as high as everyone thinks. I’ve been in this industry over 12 years, and it’s very annoying when people think that all we do is take advantage of them. Do you go to the car dealership expecting to pay the same price that the dealer did? Do you go to a restaurant or department store and expect to pay whole sale prices? No, you don’t. The funeral BUSINESS is no different.

    Jill

  8. Delellis
    Delellis says:

    There seems to be a growing number of people ( especially the younger generations ) that prefer to be cremated rather than buried. In fact I had two relatives who got cremated within the past few years. Personally I agree with them , being cremated seems be less of a bother because after cremation the deceased ( inside an urn of course ) can be brought home or a nice and small memorial place. Your don’t have to worry about the extra expense and trouble by looking for a burial plot.

    -Dino Delellis

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