Several economic theories, such as the theory of Comparative and Absolute Advantage, state that specialization is the best way to grow the global economic pie. If we all focus on only one thing, and we do that thing well, we can serve the community with our skill and rely on the skills of the community to fulfill our other needs.

In theory this is an elegant model, however the question remains, can we all really achieve our full potential by only focusing on one discipline? Let’s say that I’m a carpenter. Would my carpentry skills be best developed by studying only carpentry, or would it be more beneficial to my carpentry skills if I studied a variety of disciplines including carpentry? I think we can all agree that there is a good argument for a well rounded education, but is it even conceivable that a carpenter would see his carpentry skills improve by studying something as seemingly unrelated as biology, fishing, or gardening?

As a strong proponent of the liberal arts, I believe that there is no limit to the benefit of studying multiple disciplines. However, I am not saying that is it easy. Just like an athlete practicing line drills, if you’re not always thinking of how the skills you’re practicing can be applied to performance situations then you’re just running in circles.

The easy part is studying multiple disciplines; the hard part is connecting the dots.

(below – “Do Work” by Andrew Eifler – 2010: 53 itemized, color coded to-do lists, representing two and a half years of work)

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  • Love the post! Funny, my roommate and I always talk about how in today’s society you only have to be good at one thing to succeed in the world. Sadly enough, I haven’t found mine. So basically, I am screwed. lol.

  • Thanks for the post Camille! I’m sure that’s an exaggeration, but a lot of people say the most fun part is the search :)

  • Alex

    I can’t believe you saved all your to do lists. I throw mine out immediately.

    Although, if you have the time to key those into excel, using one row per item, with columns for date, nature of item, time to completion, and priority, I will mine the data. I really don’t know what would be the point, but maybe I can provide some deep insight into your psyche.

    You would of course receive the standard friends and family discount for my services.

  • Philosophically, perhaps. Socially, quite possibly – people may become better citizens, or just plain better people, for studying something unrelated to their primary focus. An awareness of what other people deal with is one possible advantage – it’s easy to dismiss the work of someone when you have no idea what that work entails.

    But psychologically, there are returns to specialization – well, (i) expertise is real, and primarily gives people the ability to (a) come to conclusions faster and (b) filter out meaningless or distracting information, and (ii) expertise is non-transferable to other areas. Of course, there is some generalization, e.g. a mathematician would do reasonably well as an economist (but never as well as an equally-talented economist), but very poorly as a sociologist or a psychologist.

    Interestingly, (i) and (ii) provide neat explanations for why the conventional wisdom is sometimes wrong – if a bunch of people develop expertise in an industry, and suddenly the industry changes – their expertise would actually hinder their ability to evaluate or correct for the change (it’d be filtered out as “meaningless” information). So it’s not only _possible_ for a rookie to invent a transformative change – a rookie is _necessary_ for the insight in the first place.

    Of course, that’s all irrelevant with respect to your point about studying multiple disciplines – if you study with the sole purpose of _integrating_ multiple perspectives into a single unified whole. In other words, you’d be building an expertise in a particular direction, which would be different than studying just one discipline. Note that the trade off is that you’re correspondingly less capable at any one discipline than someone who has spent the same amount of time studying just one thing.

  • Katherine Reid

    I’m quite certain that the breadth, depth and versatility of an individual who has studied several corresponding disciplines might make them not only more capable, but also more resilient and more innovative in serveral fields due to their interdisciplinary perspective. Of course, it always depends on the individual.

    by the way, hi andrew! sorry, but I was compelled to respond to the post by mr. griffiths.

  • Helen

    Those are the most impressive to do lists I have ever seen. Great job, Andy!