On pigeon holing

· by Steve · Read in about 4 min · (720 Words)

If you haven’t come across them already, I strongly recommend you take a few minutes with this HBR blog: In Defense of Polymaths, and also Adam Savage’s commencement address to Sarah Lawrence. Both are insightful pieces on the fallacy that is the tendency to believe that specialism in a narrow field is the answer to a fulfilling life experience, and ultimately to ‘success’, whatever that means - usually money, possessions and peer recognition. I thought I’d add my 2c to the conversation.

I spent a lot of my youth rather confused about what I wanted to do, because there were a bunch of things that I was either good at or had an interest in, and those things were often in flux, yet I felt the expectation that to succeed, I had to pick one and specialise in it for the foreseeable future. Life has taught me that this is just nonsense, and that unless you have a singular all-consuming passion that lasts for 40 years, you should expect to switch things up sometimes, at least if you want to stay happy.

I’ve switched up my ‘career’ (if you want to call it that) lots of times already and I expect to keep on doing it. Straight out of school I trained as an accountant before realising that didn’t interest me, but came out of it with some business, law and economics skills that I still use occasionally. I’ve trained on ‘big enterprise systems’, and for a while sought out the big, hard, complicated design problems. I also did a lot of graphics coding, from software engines to hardware accelerated, 2D and 3D systems, and ended up creating an open source project in this space that became very well known. I’ve written Mac software, currently in the developer tool space (git and mercurial). All of these things continue to be useful to me in some way, regardless of the tangental association with whatever the current project is. The Steve Martin quote that Adam Savage uses in his speech resonated with me:

You will eventually use everything you ever learned. ~ Steve Martin

However, every single time I’ve made a leap from one thing to another (I call them my ‘context switches’), I’ve had people say to me ‘But I thought you were the guy who did X!’. When I went from enterprise systems to graphics software, people thought this was odd - why wasn’t I following the natural progression (and job offers) from the previous 10 years of experience? When I moved from graphics into Mac software, some people seemed to think I must have done it under duress of some kind, and that I’d be desperate to return to my previous stomping ground. Some people don’t seem to get that it’s possible to be interested / enthused about more than one subject area, and that over time this already complex set can change. Why is that?

Well, people like attaching simplifying labels to things. It’s convenient for sure, but people are a naturally complex collections of skills, interests and desires that you really can’t pigeon-hole, even if you really want to to avoid dealing with the real depth and constantly shifting complexity that’s actually there, and how actually this should be considered to be a benefit, rather than an niggling inconvenience to your categorisation system.

There’s also a perception that you’re ’throwing away’ all your experience when you jump into a different subject area or industry. This is just plain wrong too - you never lose any of the knowledge you’ve built up (besides poor memory perhaps but rusty knowledge is polished up quite easily), but the differential of this knowledge - how much you’re learning right now - decreases hugely over time. After 5 years in a similar subject area, you’re probably not learning very much anymore; maybe you’re considered an ’expert’ now, which maybe some people like from a prestige point of view, but to me the lost opportunity of learning far more in a new subject area outweighs that considerably.

I think the tragic thing is that a lot of people end up pigeon-holing themselves because it feels like that’s expected of them, because society appears to reward only the specialists. I can’t help thinking that a lot of mid-life crises are attributable to this dynamic.