This site runs on small donations- thanks!
Read these articles
Follow me on Twitter now!
articles by category
More on Polymathics

What's the use of specialising?

Formal and Informal views on specialisation

Most people moan about ‘specialists’ but they definitely want to boast about the ‘top specialist’ they are seeing for their particular health problem. Most people hate the boredom of studying one tiny thing- I read about a man who spent four years in the crown of a baobab tree writing his Phd on the micro-organisms living in just that one five square foot area- he rebelled in the end which seems a normal enough reaction.

The culture we live in has a formal appreciation of specialisation (whereas, say, Bedouin or plains Indian culture doesn’t).

The distinction between what is formally accepted in a culture and informally accepted is a powerful tool of analysis first used by the US anthropologist Edward T Hall. In the US it is formally accepted that one should be relaxed on a first meeting. Everyone is informally tense, but pretends to be relaxed. In Japan it is formally accepted that one will be tense and nervous on a first meeting. It is meant to be wooden. Even if you feel relaxed you should act a bit stiff the first time you meet someone- it shows respect. I was always shocked at the change between a first and second meeting in Japan- second time around you can be yourself and be relaxed.

In the UK the formal culture was far stiffer than the US- but it’s changing. In the US it shows you like someone when you are ‘relaxed’ around them and help yourself to food from their fridge. To raid a friend’s fridge usually requires invitation in the UK- but not everywhere- slowly the US notion of being relaxed equalling friendliness is permeating.

A formal appreciation means that it is the default you reach for when you aren’t sure of your social footing. When I was at school there was a ‘formal appreciation’ of watching the TV in the evening and talking about it at school the next day. Because I was banned from watching certain channels I used to listen to the general conversation, pick up the relevant stuff, and then recycle it as if I had actually watched that program. No one cared or noticed. Informally I was ignorant of the TV, formally I knew my stuff.

An ‘informal appreciation’ is what people do and say among their most intimate friends and acquaintances. They may even have never conceptualised the little ‘true’ observations they make. Comedians, in the UK at least, make a good living taking informally accepted insights and ‘formalising’ them by having the courage to deliver them to the mainstream.

In terms of (not especially funny) comedic observation the word ‘having a senior moment’ was an informal recognition of the widespread nature of cognitive decay in the late middle-aged. It’s part of the formal culture now after comedians used it for a while to get laughs.

Watching and liking football was something that men did until the 1990s- and only informally did women do it. Now we have female football commentators. Liking football has been formally accepted as part of the mainstream culture for everyone.

The ‘gap year’ was something a few people who applied to Oxford and Cambridge did (because the lateness of the entrance exams meant you had a gap before going up)– it was never mentioned outside the narrow culture of those universities. But once much larger numbers became students it was easier to defer entry to any university- the gap year became formalised into mainstream culture.

These examples are only included to get you thinking about the formal and the informal. Many people cleave to the formal. They want to ‘belong’ to the main group. This kind of person uses phrases current on television. Inevitably, whatever their age group, they are already behind the times. Things move on and the informal is always being turned into the formal while new truths, relevances, social practices evolve and emerge. Those who are more observant and less concerned about ‘fitting in’ live more in the informal world than the formal one.

Which brings us to specialisation.

Specialising has been thoroughly formalised for a century or more. The idea of a ‘well rounded man’- once a formal concept, probably would now be used by a mainstream comedian to signify a tubby chap. The formal culture has one agenda on experts and specialists: they are the final word on everything. Of course informally we moan about them, we love it when they are proved wrong. But the measure is: listen to the radio or TV- they always announce a pundit as ‘an expert’ or ‘specialist on X’. I’ve had it happen myself when I went on Radio 4 to talk about a dam in Africa (because I wrote a general book on the Nile) and the producer kept calling me Dr until I explained I wasn’t one. It diminished his program to have a non-specialist- irrespective of what I knew. Just like knowing the content of th TV shows as a kid without watching, we know that many ‘specialists’ have formal acceptance way beyond their competence. And vice versa.

Specialisation- what is it good for?

We know what- doing repetitive tasks. Everything we do has a start-up and wind-down time. If you have a sequence of tasks there is a lot of in between time starting up and winding down between each task. This is eliminated if you simply do the same thing again and again. Time is saved. Production rises. The job specialisation of the production line- first utilised in the making of needles in the 17th century, but reaching its logical conclusion with the moving production line of Henry Ford- breaks every big job down into the component parts that can be most quickly and easily repeated.

Which is why we hate it. Anyone who has worked on a production line for any length of time is usually groaning with inner boredom. It’s one reason for industrial sabotage. Anything to have a laugh on a Friday afternoon. At the old BL plant in Cowley they would weld up banana skins into the subframe. The mysterious smell could never be removed.

From its very beginning everyone has known that increasing specialisation leads to boredom. And yet everyone still extols it- as long as it is other people actually doing the specialising.

And then we have non-physical specialisation. Professional class specialists- doctors, lawyers, scientists. Our complex culture has a place for all of them because it is commonly agreed that knowledge/information is so vastly expanded now that one man or women can only hope to really know a tiny area. What this actually means is that for most of a person’s academic career they are going further and further up an ever narrowing path that finally becomes the single-track that they themselves occupy.

Specialisation makes sense in many many areas. A lawyer who deals with tax problems more than marriage problems should be the go-to guy for a tax question. A mechanic who fixes lots of Daimlers should be good for fixing another.

Strangely this isn’t always the case. But the general principle seems to make sense.


Learning and specialisation

If you want to learn anything you have to focus. No distractions. Which implies specialisation. At least for a time. If you want to master anything you have to focus- perhaps for years- which implies specialisation. But once you’ve mastered, say, golf- which, if we are to believe the 10,000 hour rule, should, at 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year take five years- what then? Couldn’t you also master dentistry? And then flute playing? Using the five year rule, a normal 40 year working life could conceivably involve mastering 8 completely different subjects.

The fact is, when we focus, in our down-time we often just slack off. We do one thing a lot, and a lot of nothing too. Watching TV, drinking, playing golf without mastering it…Because doing one thing and only one things has risks- boredom, obsessiveness- we have to dilute it. So being a master takes longer than it should.

And once you are a master you have to sell yourself- you make it appear as a rare and difficult…specialisation.

But we should note that focus and learning, though they imply specialisation, and require it for limited periods of time, are not dependent on it in a broader perspective at all. One can focus, learn, use, and move on to another subject quite easily.


Philosophy and specialisation

But specialisation isn’t just about efficiency and focus- it also reflects a philosophical position. In the West man is an island, disconnected from others, generally, living and dying alone- even if he is embedded in a family or society- conceptually ‘being alone’ is a very Western concern. Descartes method of finding truth was to sit alone on top of a stove (or maybe inside it) and simply ignore everything and everyone else’s contribution. From this ‘lonely philosopher’ stance we get a straight line to the existential angst of the 20th century. It may surprise many brought up in the western tradition that among nomadic people, for example, being connected is the starting point. It’s not even doubted. So that naturally leads you to a different place. Even before the marvels of technology blinded us, Western man was predisposed to making jobs lonely, repetitive, specialised, dull. When Bedouin change a tyre (or a lighbulb) they do it in twos, threes or even fours. It may or may not be more efficient but it sure as hell is more fun. As a doctor I was travelling with once observed- “I find it hard to conceive of a depressed Bedouin”. Nomads have many faults and problems- but suffering anomie isn’t one of them.


Where specialisation becomes mere dogma

What if you don’t want to do repetitive work? What if you want to be creative?

What happens when the start up time is actually useful? What happens when moving between different jobs actually improves productivity? By increasing perspective, creative ideas and an overall sense of the importance, or not, of each part of an operation.

Athletes warm up and warm down- it helps reduce injuries. Maybe doing the same task again and again not only causes repetitive strain injuries but also an equivalent mental injury…

Polymathics is about using specialisation as we have always used it- to focus and to learn. But it is also about curtailing the formal, dogmatic uses of specialisation. It is about seeing connection as the starting point, rather than a wistful, hoped for, end game.






The Border Guard effect

In bygone centuries when national borders were more vaguely defined than today, there was a natural merging across borders of cultures and peoples. Often nomads would traverse several countries. Once a border is well defined, the urge to police it is stronger. Territory is jealously guarded, any visitor is a potential invader. Therefore it makes sense to use border guards from the interior. This way they won't trun a blind eye to relatives sneaking back and forth. Over time, the country sealed by the border becomes very distinct from the 'other side'. There is a 'roll back' at the edges. Once they merged, now there is a sharp cut off.

This is not meant to be an idealised portrait, merely an analogy for the way we think about knowledge. Once we specialise we set up demarcation lines between subject areas- 'borders'- and this leads to policing of those borders by those with the highest incentive to make the subject distinctive- not those at the edge but those at the centre- the institutions and people who gain from the subject's independent existence. But in a global sense this doesn't serve us very well. Just as policed borders lead to cultural intolerance and ignorance, so, too, do borders in knowledge lead to a lack of creativity, narrowness and infertility. The 'roll back' at the edges emphasises the differences between this subject and others and this makes cross-fertilisation of new ideas harder. New ideas are seen as unwelcome immigrants, people to repel at the border.

What's more, the border guard effect guarantees a 'no man's land'- the machine guarded strip where no one goes- this dead zone is artificial, but it is actually the most fertile area for any sort of knowledge- where it comes into contact with something other and new.

To get funding or backing we need a label, a specialisation. We stop at the border and obey the machine gun logic. We follow an unnatural inward looking path, a turning-in, focusing on identity rather than seeking knowledge. Learning is about being open, and ignoring manmande borders.


C.A.S.E. or C.L.A.S.P?

I love acronyms...and I wanted to have a simple acronym to get across the content of a polymathic study or investigation CASE seemed quite good: Connected Arts Sciences Experience. Connected because you need in the first place to be open to perspectives of all kinds on the subject in question. By being open you get to see more, and see better what is really there. Also a state of 'openess', anecdotally defined as being 'into it' but also 'transparent', not bringing any emotional baggage to a new area of study, is optimal for learning. When we are in 'sort' mode- deciding what to accept and what 'fits' with us we aren't able to learn. We are literally blinkered- but worse- these are imaginary mental blinkers so we are also wasting energy 'ignoring' things right in front of our eyes. To see more- be open- to the artistic perspective, the scientific perspective and the experiential. The experiential aspect is the 'lived' element of any study, how it relates to our own lives as we live them. To study something- be it a river, global warming, relationships, motorbikes we need to include the experiential element to get perspective. Experience is what tells us to highlight certain areas and ignore others.

But something was missing from this- the physical aspect of polymathics. Physical knowledge is the essential fourth element in generating a polymathic perspective. When we focus solely on mind knowledge we lose the balancing factor (can't have too many balancing factors) of bodily physicality. For example, if you were making a polymathic study of violence it would have to include some physical knowledge of violence- how to knock a nail into a block of wood, how much effort is needed to smash a brick, how much it hurts to punch a sand bag. This overlaps with the experiential aspects of polymathy but physical knowledge- meaning that which we 'know' without having to think about it is a huge area of human competence- but because it can't be written down has been very much overlooked. Film and video can capture such expertise more easily and this has led to a greater appreciation of the importance of this area of knowledge. So to include physicality I suggest a second acronym- CLASP- Connected Living Arts Sciences Physicality. Does an acronym get us any further? I think it has a use as a check list for generating perspectives when looking at a new area of study.


Rod or net: the big question


I have to admit an admiring fascination for Bear Grylls' The Island. In this program a team of men have to survive for 40 days on an island. One guy, Vic, is good at fishing with a rod and on a good day brings home five fish.Vic is a loud northern type who has a chip on his shoulder about posh Sam. Sam seems a bit of a dreamer and is no good at manual work. Vic leads the group in denigrating Sam as a skiver. But Sam is tough. He steadfastly keeps working on his own project which is to repair and use an old fishing net. Everyone thinks he is wasting his time but he keeps going. Every day he sets it and every day it's empty- but that's how you learn with fishing. You keep fine tuning and you keep trying. The others begin to ignore Sam but then one day he asks them to help him with the net...he's caught 23 fish!

Sometimes it's worth going out on a limb, against the group, sticking to your guns and using creativity to be audacious.


Stupidity is a form of dishonesty

I have been reading and immensely enjoying a war memoir by an Irish woman married to a German official living in Berlin during the second world war. The block leader- the party member whose job it is to collect dues and spy on the other residents is the local gardener. After WW1 he lost all his savings in the inflation of the early 1920s. In the crash of 1929 he loses his job and again all his pitiful savings needed to get married. He joins the Nazi party and finally gets married though its too late to have kids. the author remarks on a Berlin joke of the 1930s- intelligent and dishonest=nazi, stupid and honest=nazi, intelligent and honest=anti-nazi. And the gardener is honest, though portrayed as stupid- he cannot through the many lies told by his beloved party. When the war ends he is hanged by disgruntled locals- or perhaps by Russians- from a lamp-post. His luck has run out yet again.

But it made me think- we often describe people as stupid but honest- meaning they won't cheat or lie to you. But this is a child's definition of honesty. Real honesty- the only kind that has developmental potential- is knowing when you are deceiving yourself. It's having a propensity for self-deception, it is, in fact, hypocrisy by another name. 

Stupid people are forgiven for being easily deceived. But most deceptions are a result of greed not a simple mistake (you can tell the difference- a simple mistake allows of correction, the greedy reject outside correction). We are greedy for an outcome we don't deserve, or something plainly unlikely- we deceive ourselves that something is true when it is obvious to outsiders that it isn't.

Focusing on the stupidity or intelligence of a person seems less use than seeing how much they choose to deceive themselves. But even this doesn't quite hit the mark- the moral censure isn't needed. Those that deceive themselves are lacking mental flexibility. They can only see things one way, the greed makes them inflexible. By focusing on mental flexibility you outwit stupidity and dishonesty.


What path are you on?

I like paths. They seem to wobble arbitrarily but actually they follow the path of least resistance. They reflect a group intelligence- all the people or animals that have walked the same way. A dead straight path would actually be less efficient, you'd go up and down more than necessary. The more hilly the terrain the more tortuous and crazy seeming are the paths. Of course you're much more likely to lose your way on a winding path.



King of the Headhunters

Taken on Burmese border, nagaland. the number of heads equals the number of brass skulls around his neck.

Page 1 ... 3 4 5 6 7 ... 76 Next 7 Entries »