Specialization is for Insects

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My new favourite quote:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

-Robert A. Heinlein

I believe there's things we do and things we don't, and an ocean of regrets in between the two. Heinlein captured this divide quite well.

But let me give you some background: Robert Anson Heinlein (July 7, 1907 – May 8, 1988) was an American science fiction writer whose work repeatedly addressed social themes like the value of individual liberty and self reliance, the tendency of society to repress non-conformist thought and the influence of organized religion on culture and government.

Heinlein spoke the "specialization is for insects" quote through the voice of Lazarus Long, a character in the science fiction novel Time Enough for Love, which was first published in 1973. Again, that's 1973! So here's what struck a cord:

  1. Heinlein believed that being able to program a computer was an important skill in the arsenal of a proper polymath. In 1973. Well, it's 2014 and I can't say I'm all that skilled at programming a computer. Better catch up and get my big data on as well while I'm at it. If only it were that simple...

  2. Supporting generalism was not a well-received position in 1973. However, Heinlein believed that individualism was incompatible with ignorance and that we owe it ourselves to represent our beliefs and pursue our interests in their entirety. He believed that an appropriate level of adult competence was achieved through a wide-ranging education, whether this occurred in a classroom or not. So why not take a leaf out of a rather old book (old for our digital standards at least) and embrace the exploration of alternative paths?

If at the end of this short post you're thinking that all that sounds great, but you don't really have the freedom (due to finances, circumstances, expectations, etc.) to pursue a generalist's path, here's some thoughts to inspire you from Heinlein:

Caveat: I realize that this concept that specialization is for insects might offend quite a few of you. I respect your position, but this is my own.


Time Enough for Love
Robert Anson Heinlein, 1973