Specialization is Overrated: On Being Kinda Good at Many Things
The entire educational system is based on the premise that you must pick a field and specialize. Expertise, they tell you, is the key to success. If you want to stand out in this vicious job market, you had better be the very best in your specialty.
What’s often overlooked — and even mocked — is the value of being “kinda good” in many fields. Yet when it comes to building a business, being slightly competent at many things will often get you further than specializing.
As a young professional starting your own business, it makes a lot of sense to ignore conventional wisdom, and instead of striving to be the best in one field, become “kinda good” at many different things.
When random skills from the past pop up in your business
When I launched my business a year ago, one of the first things I did was apply for a trademark. Sure, I knew it wasn’t a necessity, but Puttylike was such a cool name that I didn’t want to take any chances. The $300 fee was non-refundable. If you did this without a lawyer and your application got rejected, that was it. You didn’t get your money back.
Funny, I wasn’t expecting to use my legal skills in any practical way since I made the choice to not become a lawyer. But there I was, thinking over whether my business name would be considered “descriptive” and whether it mattered that Puttylike is only listed in some dictionaries.
My knowledge of trademark law was rudimentary. I took an intellectual property class in law school, but had no real expertise in the area.
About six months later, I was notified that my trademark application had been accepted. Rock on.
I had a similar experience when I was setting up my website. It was my first time using WordPress, and I had no idea how the platform worked. Yet over the years, I had picked up a bit of CSS from odd web design gigs here and there. My coding, again, was only “kinda good.”
But just knowing a tiny bit of CSS was enough to get me started, and I learned more as I went. In about three weeks, I had customized my entire theme and ended up with a pretty neat-looking website.
This all came as a result of being just “kinda good.” I didn’t have to be the best web designer, I didn’t have to specialize. I just had to be mildly competent for my skills to have a real, valuable application.
Similarly, when I decided to launch a podcast, my experiments recording songs in my basement as an angsty teenager came in handy. I knew exactly how to get a great sound out of a cheap USB mic. Dilettantism to the rescue!
Being in startup mode means wearing many hats
The reason playing the field is so valuable for entrepreneurs is that when you’re in startup mode, you end up doing a little bit of everything.
I suppose I could have hired a lawyer to register my trademark or a web designer to tweak my WordPress theme or an audio editor to edit my podcast, but as a startup, who has the cash for that?
Being “kinda good” at many things can be a curse, too
Of course, being “kinda good” at many things can also be a curse if you’re not careful. It requires discipline. It’s tempting to do things, not because you enjoy them, but simply because you know you can.
But it’s impossible to do everything. A better approach is to take note of the activities you enjoy and the ones you don’t. Once your business grows to a place where you can afford to outsource or hire employees, have them take over the activities you could do but don’t enjoy.
For example, I hired a designer to design my new book. I could have easily figured it out on my own, but I just knew that I would have hated it. I also knew that my time was better spent on things like promotion. And so I made a choice.
Being “kinda good” is, ironically, empowering
Here’s the thing about being “kinda good” at many things: you’ve got choice. You can hire someone if you like or you can do it yourself.
Being a little competent at many things is empowering. You don’t need to call on other people for answers.
Follow your heart and trust that the dots will connect
You never know where those odd skills you picked up from a passing interest might come in handy. After all, Apple wouldn’t have the beautiful typography it’s become known for, had Steve Jobs not snuck into one completely random and “impractical” calligraphy class when he was eighteen.
Don’t be afraid to just be “kinda good.” What matters isn’t so much that you’re an expert, but that you’re using whatever skill you do have to further a project that means something to you.
Have random skills from your past proven useful in your entrepreneurial pursuits?
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