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Focus or Folly: An Argument Against Over-specialization

Flying Hippo

By Flying Hippo

It seems like these days, everyone is expected to specialize in a super niche field of study.

“Be a type designer, a JavaScript engineer, or a mobile expert. But, never try to be all three. Focus, focus, FOCUS”.

It’s understandable; we only have so much time in the day, why spread ourselves thin? And, certain skills can easily take up all of your time to really do them well. I get it.

But, here’s the thing: specialization is boring! Why would I spend all of my time surpassing a knowledge level that takes me from being a capable coder to having a de facto PhD in everything JavaScript, while learning nothing else? And, why do I need to know this much about JavaScript if I can learn all that I need to know to use it effectively with half as much study?

I don’t consider myself some coding “expert.” But, I know enough to accomplish what I need to do to build great websites. And, I feel the same way about design!

Both of these skills are very important and valuable to me — and they aren’t necessarily in conflict with one another. It’s an incredible feeling to know that you can build the things you think up, and designing motivates you to learn more real coding skills. Design skills also make you think about how you are formatting your code, making it readable for other developers and finding beauty in its simplicity, while coding skills give you knowledge about how your design might be structured and function in practice.

It’s almost like a Yin and Yang. To design is to communicate, to code is to write. It’s amazing how well these things go together. When designers learn how to code and developers learn how to design, they become product builders — full-blown craftsmen, honing their skills to create the best final outcome.

This breaks convention of the specialization model, where designers and developers are often placed in isolated stages of the process, like an assembly line. One makes things look pretty, another makes things work. Many times, there’s no communication, teamwork, or consideration for what they could accomplish if they simply combined their knowledge toward a single, final product, rather than focusing on their specific tasks.

Focusing on one skill can easily give you tunnel vision, make your creations stale, and — in my opinion — is just plain boring. Gain the skills you need to make the things you desire and not only will your creations be better, but you will learn something new in the process.

Many people will argue that you can’t learn everything. And, they’re right — to some extent. But, there is this false equivalency that says learning more than one specific skill means you want to learn “everything”. Obviously, this isn’t true. Even to learn two or three skills is better than only knowing one, without the need to sacrifice the deep knowledge of specialization. The point is to focus on the subset of knowledge that you love and not feel bad about spending time on skills outside of your wheelhouse.

You can be a master of more than one thing. Learn, grow, and build cool things.

Top image via Flickr user mbpphotography.


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