CHENNAI: A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialisation is for insects.”
This poem/summary is from Robert A Heinlein’s science-fiction novel Time Enough for Love. The poem (it isn’t a poem, but I prefer calling it one) summarises what it takes to be a competent human being, a character trope in a lot of Heinlein’s stories. The ability to multitask is an important trait of a competent human being; the ability to do and specialise in more than one thing at once is essentially what the ‘poem’ is about.
And then there are proverbs like Jack of all Trades, Master of None, which try to summarise and in the process, condense, the outdated ideology that you need to specialise in a particular field, or line of work, or master a particular skill. When treating and comparing the proverb and the poem at face value, it is obvious that the two largely differ in ideologies. Being a man of many interests, Heinlein’s poem made sense to me and even inspired me on some level, whereas, the proverb, when I first heard it in school, sounded cynical and demeaning to my 9-year-old self who wanted to be an astronaut while simultaneously running my own dosa parlour. Objectively speaking, Heinlein’s poem is a just a poetic retelling of facts that explain human behavior, while the proverb is an opinion that’s cynical and elitist in nature.
Human beings are capable and are evolved in a way that supports Heinlein’s views — to work mentally and physically at the same time. It is true, however, that specialisation allures us. Even our social structure has been constructed in such a way that specialists of a particular something are entitled to credibility, which of course stems from legitimacy that a specialisation provides. An extension of that stigma is that, as human beings, we get too caught with being specialists sometimes that we forget that our abilities to explore and perform aren’t necessarily restricted to one particular field.
Given how our social structure dictates how we behave, what if human beings were only specialists at one particular thing and nothing else? If you were an orthodontist, you could only be great with teeth, you couldn’t be a singer; if you were a woodcutter, you could never be a heart surgeon. The thought of being a specialist at something, and excelling, does sound intriguing but only on paper, like a lot of other ‘great-sounding’ things. But just out of the sheer inability to do other things, this hypothetical gets boring and mundane, the second you start thinking of the impossibility to do other things.
In a world where specialisation is just one click away, being great at one thing isn’t very impressive, but being good at a lot of things is certainly satisfying. Specialisation is for insects.
(When he isn’t writing, the creative producer with The Rascalas watches a lot of ‘cat videos’ on YouTube)