Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to make a spreadsheet of my fears so I could score them on how likely they are to come to pass. (This probably says a little too much about me.)
On this imaginary spreadsheet, there are plausible fears – perhaps a worldwide coffee shortage would rate an unlikely-but-possible 0.1, and there are incredibly unlikely fears: being unwillingly thrust on stage as a substitute ballet dancer would be a 0.0001. To be honest, I’m not sure that latter fear is even worth worrying about; if it ever happens, something far worse must have already gone profoundly wrong.
This imagination exercise is oddly reassuring. It reminds me that most fears which cross my mind will simply never come to pass.
The fears which actually occur in my life tend not to be things I worry about. If I look back over the last few years, there’s only one deep fear which I’ve actually experienced and had to get over… and–like compulsory ballet emergencies–it’s also a little silly-sounding.
The fear of specialization
Every time I’m required to specialize, I feel trapped. I felt this choosing classes at school. I felt it choosing a university program. I feel it when accepting a career opportunity. I even feel it when making an irreversible choice in an RPG game about what skills my character might learn!
The bigger the commitment, the greater the feeling of discomfort.
On the surface, this is irrational, as I adore learning new things. Yet every new thing I learn brings a mild anxiety, as if part of me fears that I might lose my breadth if I dare to develop my depth.
This is, of course, nonsense. I don’t erode myself by specializing.
So that’s that. It’s nonsense. Problem solved… right?
Not so fast.
Unfortunately, fears don’t simply disappear just because you tell them they’re nonsense. Let’s go a little deeper. What causes the fear of specialization?
On first inspection, the root of this anxiety is unclear. I love acquiring knowledge and skills, so why would I also fear them? It can’t be that I actually believe that learning new things will make me forget the old ones.
If I imagine myself in a situation which might provoke this fear, I can see the kind of thoughts I might have:
Okay, so I’m committing to studying something interesting for a couple of years! Cool. But… this is going to be very time-consuming. I might not have much time for anything else. And what about afterwards? Does it make sense to only do this for a couple of years? Perhaps I’ll have to commit to going deeper into this field afterwards. Do I really want to give my whole life over to it..? I don’t want to narrow myself down.
There’s a lot going on here, but I can spot three main fears running through my inner monologue:
- The fear that during the commitment I might not have time for my other interests
- The fear that this commitment may demand more of my time afterwards
- The fear of sacrificing breadth for depth
The first two relate to time. And they make sense: if I give time to this I won’t have any left for that.
However, this is a fully general fear: it applies equally to everything! (You can tell because if I abandoned this and did that instead then I would feel exactly the same anxiety!)
As we’ve discussed previously, it can be a struggle to commit time to an activity, but time has to be spent somewhere! I’ve improved at recognizing this particular demon when it crops up, and have learnt to act through the paralysis.
Can breadth Be negative?
The third fear appears to be that too much depth might erode my breadth. We’ve talked before about other ways to think about this conundrum, but are there practical actions I could take, too?
It seems to me it’s possible to maintain other passions despite having developed new specialties, and also through them.
First, no activity ever takes up all of our time. It’s irrational for me to fear that starting a new course – or job, or whatever – will leave me with literally zero minutes for everything else. If I care enough to do something, I can always find some time.
And if I don’t care enough to find a few minutes, then I either I don’t care enough to do it, or I have no choice but to accept that this isn’t something I can do right now. At this point I’m back to being angry with the universe that time is finite and I can only do a single thing at once: while true, it’s not a particularly useful battle for me to pick.
Working through commitments
Far more exciting to me is the possibility of combining my interests with my new specialty. This new commitment may require much of my time, but perhaps I can mix other interests into it and make something even greater.
For example, if I were in an alternate universe where I was taking up ancient pottery, I could use my existing passions to write software which identified types of pots, or perhaps write songs and stories about them, or…um…probably not use them to cook with, but you get the idea.
Specialization is just another option
My aim is ultimately to view specialization as simply another tool to be used, or a mode I can operate in for a time, rather than something to instinctively fear.
Deep down, I’ll always struggle to accept that it’s impossible to do everything to the fullest imaginable extent. But it’s not rational for that impossibility to prevent me from doing things I want to do!
What’s your relationship with specialization like? Do you embrace it? Or fear it? Share your story with the community in the comments!