“Every time I’m required to specialize, I feel trapped”
Photo courtesy of Ken Teegarden.

“Every time I’m required to specialize, I feel trapped”

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Fear

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:

  1. The fear that during the commitment I might not have time for my other interests
  2. The fear that this commitment may demand more of my time afterwards
  3. 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!

Your Turn

What’s your relationship with specialization like? Do you embrace it? Or fear it? Share your story with the community in the comments!

neil_2017_2Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at walkingoncustard.com and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.

33 Comments

  1. Riccardo Bua says:

    I have the opposite issue, would aim for many specialization at a time, but as you say time is limited. I feel we just need to know how to avoid overcommitting and building instead what Pamela Slim in her nice book calls a body of work, where there is the magic thread connecting all our different interests ;-)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I get where you’re coming from, Riccardo! I think it’s two sides of the same coin: you can’t achieve anything without *some* specialisation, but – since time is finite – every choice we make excludes other options. It’s all about finding that balance that lets us build as satisfying and enjoyable a body of work as we can :)

      • Riccardo Bua says:

        Indeed Neil as I keep repeating we have 24 hours a day to live by, no more no less, better to make the most out of them :-)

  2. Willie McCoy says:

    In my experience, “specializing” often just opens up doors for more multipotentiality…but it sometimes takes a curious, ambitious, or creative thinker to see it. It’s not just a matter of creating the ability to mix other things into the “specialized” area; there’s also the issue of knowledge growth that opens up doors in general. For example, understanding general energy management can lead into renewable energy, energy efficiency, energy auditing, energy policy, utility transmission, a slew of basic energy engineering principles, innovative architecture, biomimicry energy design, building commissioning (examining a built structure to ensure that it is working like it was designed) and more… none of which are possible without a solid understanding of the foundational piece.

    Whenever I need to specialize for one reason for another… it starts off fun (yay, new stuff!), then it starts to get old (Ug, more of this), then there’s the quest (I still have to do this, so I need to keep it fresh: what else can I learn about it? How can I make this fun?), then at a certain level of mastery and exposure, the ceiling breaks and all the worms spill out (omg look at all this stuff I can do with it! Who knew there were so many topics inside just this one topic?! I could learn new and different things to do with this forever and ever… but I know I probably will move on at some point.). The trick is making it past the slog.

    But it seems to me… none of us people are simple to behold, we all have a hundred little worlds and different versions of self inside… and none of our various interests and fields of study are that simple, either. Unless we make it that way.

    That being said, I’m still going to tromp off to study folk dance, editing, psychology, grant management, and alternative fuel vehicles. Ciao!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      “none of us people are simple to behold, we all have a hundred little worlds and different versions of self inside”

      I love this, and it’s so true. Every post like this I write I also want to add “but there are parts of me that disagree!” though I’m sure that would rapidly get old! Exploring those different aspects of ourselves and trying to keep them all as satisfied as possible is tough work… :D

      • Willie McCoy says:

        You know what… I’ve been thinking about this. And I realize that my LinkedIn profile totally reflected my fear that if it encompassed my multipotentiality, it wouldn’t look professional. Everything on there was true, but it felt like a lie because I was cherry-picking the things that would make me LOOK like a specialist. And for what? I’m not even in the job market right now – who am I trying to impress?

        I updated it this weekend. I added more of my educational background, past careers, present side-jobs, the word “multipotentialite,” and some summary phrasing that somewhat ties my scattered background together as a general skill set. It feels right now. Especially since people still occasionally seek me out for some of those “side” skills.

        Everyone who knew me, knew what I could do, but publicly, I guess I was still in the multipotentialite closet. No more.

  3. Robin Coffman says:

    This is SO timely, and I thank you. I left a position that had taken up all of my physical and mental/emotional energy this past February, and have been happy to stay home and get my gardens in order / imagining myself as a mini-homesteader-in-training. However, bills need paid, and that will require some manner of income stream that doesn’t compromise my current values. And then I get stalled. I worry so much that doing coursework in some area (what area???) will lock me into something I can’t get out of, and I’ll feel stuck forever! One idea that I am passively pursuing is to put myself out there to do editing work, but what if … what if … what if?? There are so many other interests and avenues of learning to pursue! It is such a relief to read that this is not an uncommon problem! Thanks again. RC

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Really pleased this resonated with you, Robin, and I hope it helps feed your decisions about what you might like to do next :)

    • Martina says:

      Robin, I can so relate to what you are saying. After being stuck in administration and bookkeeping for the past 30 years I had a burn-out January last year. I took me nearly a year to recover in which we moved to Sweden for my husband’s job and I have been happy as a housewife for over a year now. Like you I feel the urge to earn some money even though we are quite ok without my salary. But I really don’t want to go back to this corporate world which just doesn’t seem to suit me. I am interested in learning to code but what if nothing comes from it? I struggle to spend time on things that interest me because I feel guilty if there is no job idea coming out of it. Just like I would entertain myself while my man gets stressed at work. I guess it is my inner critic and the voices of past comments I got when changing my field of interest. But still I am standing on the breaks and can’t move though there is a few things I would love to dive into. Probably should just make a decision and start?!

  4. Gaia says:

    My fear of specialisation (other than what you said “if I do this, I can’t do that!”) is related to the fear of being labelled by others. I fear that people will expect me to do just that one thing and won’t understand if I then change my mind. Of course it’s my life and I can do whatever I want, but the pressure of being “accepted” and understood has often more power over us – what a curse to dream of doing it all! (not really, I love it :P )

    Great article! :)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      This is an interesting angle, Gaia! I’ve also experienced this, though I often fear what I imagine others will think of me far more often than anyone has ever actually said anything! A lot of the labelling takes place in my own head…

      Thrilled you liked the article and I hope it helps you explore your feelings about what you’re doing!

  5. Kaci says:

    I struggle with having enough time, especially because I have chronic health issues and spend a ridiculous amount of time running myself and my children to appointments halfway across the state. And I only have so much energy to spend before I am forced to rest. Being a multipotentialite on top of this is a balancing act, for sure! I have learned to choose carefully what I commit to so I don’t burn out and have to quit two months in. Facing my limitations has been really hard, but I simply don’t have the energy to do everything.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      That sounds tough, Kaci – and very impressive that you’re managing to juggle all those commitments as well as your own passions. It sounds like you’ve learned a lot about managing your energy and time – thank you so much for sharing with us :)

  6. JS Mysman says:

    This really struck a chord with me. I am fifty years old and have just signed up to do a university degree through night school over the next five years. Suddenly now all I want to do is a landscape design course, and a pottery course, and learn to weave, and anything except study psychology and economics.

    If I had the option of stopping and starting the degree at my discretion, or changing my major every year, I would be loving every moment of it.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Haha, this sounds VERY familiar! I try to remind myself that whatever I chose to do I would feel the same, and that if I don’t choose SOMETHING then I’ll end up doing nothing at all. But it’s good to know I’m not alone! :)

      In practice I tend to be very good at sticking to commitments once I’ve made them, but those early wobbles of “what if everything else” can be disorienting.

  7. Tom says:

    I get what you’re all saying. A few weeks ago I received a flyer in my mailbox offering a free introductory lesson at a Korean martial arts group. Hey, I’m a multipotentialite… flyers like this are catnip to me! I’d booked myself a spot before I even looked at the rest of my mail.

    I had my free lesson. I was totally out of my comfort zone, felt awkward, and was surrounded by people with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject. I was a complete noob, out of my depth, but being taught new stuff by the second! This hobby would even have a cool outfit. So far, perfect!

    Then, they told me about the regular assessments that would let me progress through the ranks and potentially become a black-belt inside five years.

    What? Whoah. That left me feeling rather conflicted – five years. That’s surely a commitment to a specialism!!! Five years is the kind of timeframe folks with only one hobby are comfortable with!

    I thanked the people for the lesson and said I’d consider signing-up. Now all I can think about is shoving my other projects on the back-burner to pursue my new-found interest in martial arts, despite my conflicted feelings about the ‘commitment’ required… but I can also see how it will fit rather nicely into my spectrum of interests.

  8. Kayla says:

    I so resonate with this!! I just got a job as a receptionist at a hair salon with plans to go to cosmetology school next year! But deep down i’d love to specialize in nursing or medicine i’d love to pursue it someday! I think I fear specialization sometimes in that everyone around me wishes that i’d pick something instead of being the person that wants to pursue 5 different careers!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Ah, I’m pleased you relate to it! Good luck with the new job, and I hope you find ways to pursue your other passions too :)

  9. Linda says:

    I once turned down a permanent job because it was major specialization – one teeny tiny little area of my field of expertise. As a contractor I get to do lots of things in my day to day work, even though nominally I might be hired for a specific job. As a contractor I can pick and choose who I work for, and for how long. Taking the permanent job was a bridge too far – I would have learned heaps and developed my skills exponentially, but I would have been doing the same thing day in day out, and I just couldn’t face it.

    • Tom says:

      I hear you Linda! I love my career in advertising because my involvement in a project only lasts as long as the client’s ad campaign runs. Following day I’ll get to drop everything I was concentrating on for that client and start afresh for a completely new one, advertising something different (side benefit – I get to learn the inner-workings of all kinds of diverse and interesing industries).

      My partner has a job following absolutely the same routine and procedures every day… for ten years… my idea of hell!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      It’s great that you know yourself well enough to turn down opportunities you know will ultimately not take you to where you want to be. It’s reassuring to remember that we don’t have to take every opportunity that comes our way – it’s all about our own circumstances and what we want and need. Thank you for sharing :)

  10. Mark Lybeer says:

    Thank you so much for speaking for me on this one Neil. I too, always get a little bogged down in my own head when forced to specialize. But I sense that part of my propblem is my own ego.

    I have a deep seated desire to stand out from the crowd – the more specialized I get at something, the more I notice that there are other people that are there also, and we become competitive with one another. It happens every time. We are constantly told that competition makes us better, but I’m not fully convinced that this is not always true – anyway, sometimes I feel that I fear specialization because I fear that I will invest a lot of time and I still won’t stand out from the crowd.

    Does this make any sense?

    • Neil Hughes says:

      It totally makes sense, Mark! I think you’ve put it into words very well – some want to be anonymous, and like being part of the crowd; some prefer to stand out somehow… and it’s easy to fear losing ourselves in a field of others doing the same thing. It’s impressive that you know yourself well enough to understand that you have that need! I hope you find ways to meet it while also exploring your passions as fully as possible.

  11. Sara Richter says:

    I would arguably say specialization has always been an underlying fear of mine. As you me roomed picking classes, majors and a job, I reflect how my own college application had 3 majors I was curious and I would literally go through the catalog by hand coloring and selecting any class i wanted to take. (I went to a small liberal arts school.)

    Currently I feel like my job is making me specialize in order to move ahead. It’s a fighting mess because I really just want to learn and know everything. I have also discovered instructional design as a career field that allows me to learn, study and analyze information, how to teach it by using technology. It helps me specialize but not.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I think finding ways to specialise across multiple fields at once can be a great way to develop our skills while maintaining variety – really glad you’ve found ways of doing that through your career :) It’s encouraging to know it’s possible, so thank you for sharing!

  12. AstridGrover says:

    This really strike a chord with me. I fear that if i had to specialize and commit to just one, i will not have the time to do other things that i’m equally passionate about. I feel that because of my age (im 38) i don’t have much time to focus on just one project. I’m doing so many things at one time and yet there are so many other things I want to start working on but even the thought of it makes me exhausted.

  13. Nancy Hann says:

    I never enrolled full time in college because I couldn’t imagine choosing ONE thing to major in. I had way too many interests and couldn’t decide which one to commit to for the REST OF MY LIFE. True Story. Aaaak!

    My fear is generally in getting bored and getting stuck with no way out. Obviously not really a rational fear, but it certainly seemed real way back then. Instead I took classes in my spare time that I was interested in for fun and for business development.

    My path was to get a job where I could learn and move up in the ranks and move around to different departments to learn more and different things. Throughout my career I have rarely stayed either in the same position or with the same responsibilities for more than 3 years. Generally by that time I feel that I’ve mastered the tasks and I’m ready to move on. The benefit of this is that I have a huge catalog of experience, so I’m able to get a job pretty easily. Downside, of course is the lack of specialization that brings the “big bucks”. :-) But that’s ok. I’m not sure I would be happy with a Master’s Degree in one particular thing, because I’d be ready for something new by the time I was finished.

    I really appreciate that our culture is moving toward celebrating the multi-potentialites and not trying to shove each of us into a space that doesn’t fit. The entrepreneurial nature of the last decade or two provides so many wonderful opportunities to express our passions and change as we go. After decades of feeling like I should settle into one “career”, I now embrace all my passions and interests and look forward to discovering the perfect way to express them.

  14. Sienna says:

    Like what Gaia said, my struggle with specialization is less on the ‘me’ end of things and more on the ‘other people’ end of things. My brand of multipotentialism is a bit serial in nature, so I’ll dive deep into one thing for 6-12 months and then move along, taking what I’ve learned with me into the next adventure–but all the friends I make in the course of that one thing tend to talk to me forever after as if I’m STILL 100% in the service of that one thing. They wonder why I haven’t been doing such-and-such lately, or they assume it’s my whole life. Granted, it can be nice to have those special-interest conversations with people, but it does tend to put the brakes on potential full, well-rounded friendships.

    Solid article! A pleasure to see your musings as always. :3

  15. Aimee says:

    I was reading an article about personal branding and one of the pro tips to get a job or succeed professionally is to, yes, specialize. It literally said:

    “Don’t try to persuade a client or employer that you’re a “Jack-of-all-trades,” equally adept at whatever happens to come up. No one wants to hire a Jack. They want to hire someone who is crazy good at one thing, whatever it is, that will really matter. Figure out that one thing and go after it.”

    Of course, this hit me on a personal level as I think being a multipotentialite is part of what makes me unique, but of course, I have this fear that for the important people out there this is mostly a weakness

    • Emilie says:

      Yeah, this is just the same old refrain people love to spout. It’s all about how you position yourself. If you focus on what you’re accomplishing for the client (what THEY’re going to get) rather than on everything YOU can do, you’ll have a much easier time getting gigs and integrating many skills into one business. There are just too many successful, multi-talented people out there for this statement to be true.

  16. Irene says:

    This is so true. The worst struggle for me is the fact that I want to learn so many different things and subjects and at the same time I really want to be a specialist in each of them. This is so stressful because my mind tells me that I’m not good enough to do something if I’m not specialized in it, so the only way is to go through it. But as soon as I start to focus only on one thing, my fear to waste my time comes up and I’m not sure anymore to continue in what I started. The truth is that is impossible to be specialized in everything and I deeply know this, but it’s very hard to accept it. At least I know I’m not the only one. Thank you.

  17. Raz says:

    So I started when I was 15 doing network administration, as any computer geek youngster wood and I was making money so that was very rewarding. Later on got into organizing events, bar-tending on an island, bike tour guide, animator, back to it, cruise ship, guide… and now… everything is the same… they are all good but none of them … doing something for as little as even 4 months in a row of just that I feel trapped… the later we go on the harder to choose…

Leave a Comment