Q&A: A perpetually fascinating specialization

Philip Morgan

Another good question from my post opt-in survey:

How do I discover the area of specialization that is both perpetually fascinating to me and valuable to the market?

Good question. If we were speaking realtime, I’d ask if you really meant the “perpetually fascinating” part. If you said “yes”, then I’d say: forget it. Won’t happen. Then I’d just stare straight into the 30mm f1.4 lens of my webcam and gently bite my tongue to create as long a moment of silence as you could stand. I’d wait to hear what you say next. We can’t do that here, so let me share some thoughts about the larger idea you’ve touched on with this question. Perpetual isn’t the kind of word that most people throw around casually, so I will assume you mean “extremely long time” or “forever”.

3 Layers

A word that people do throw around casually is “expert”. I hate this. Self-made expertise has 3 layers, and I use the analogy of the human skin. The epidermis of expertise is thin, superficial, and mostly dead. I hate when people use expertise to refer to those operating at the epidermis of expertise. It’s insulting to those who’ve put in the real work to cultivate deeper forms of expertise. I’ll use myself as an example. I do have rare, valuable expertise on a few topics, one of which is the topic of specialization and market positioning. When I first learned about this idea, I got excited about it. My point of view at that time was: “everybody should do this. It’s magic!” I had a rough idea of how positioning should work, and I used wacky made-up terminology to discuss it in the first two editions of The Positioning Manual for Technical Firms. This is what the epidermis of expertise is like. You see things in simplistic ways. You over-apply what you know, and you fail to see how context effects the question(s) you are trying to answer using your superficial expertise. This was me some years ago. As you move into the dermis of expertise, your head kind of explodes. You start to understand that, unless your expertise is about as complex as operating a tanning bed, you are actually operating within some kind of system — probably a complex one — and context and relationships with other components of the system matter way the fuck more than you thought they did. You also start to see more nuance and detail in your core area of focus. When I moved past the epidermis of expertise in specialization/positioning and into the dermis, I started to realize some things. For example:

  • Not every services firm needs a specialized market position. For some, their large size can be a very effective way of specializing-by-not-actually-specializing.
  • Specialization, or business strategy in general, needs to be modulated to fit the solopreneur context, where personality plays an outsized role in these decisions compared to a larger company or team context.

At the dermis of expertise, platitudes and 1-size-fits-all solutions start to fall apart, and this feels quite bad for the developing expert. You actually feel like less of an expert than you did at the epidermis of expertise. This is normal, and it sucks. And so, you persist. You recruit complementary forms of expertise to make your solutions fail less often. An example here is a data scientist who becomes a competent Python or R programmer not because they are pivoting their career, but because those are the languages with the best data science libraries. For me, I needed to become conversant in the language of risk in order to make my solutions fail less often. The simplistic “errybody should specialize!” idea I developed in the epidermis of expertise needed to give way to a more nuanced understanding of how risk tolerance and personality interacts with a solopreneur’s goals for their business. At the hypodermis of expertise, you start to master the system, and there’s a fractal quality at play here, so mastery can be ongoing but also evolving. It’s mastery within an infinite game, not an end point. In the hypodermis, context goes supernova. McKinsy and others talk about the “T-Shaped Person”. This idea is relevant, but the top of the T to me represents a sort of broad worldliness, or a helpful basket of generalist skills. To me, the critical development at the hypodermis of expertise is an encompassing, nuanced, realistic grasp of the whole context related to your area of focus. I might be moving into the hypodermis of expertise with respect to specialization. Again, context goes supernova here. One of the foundational texts on positioning/specalization is from Al Ries and Jack Trout. It’s a good read, but I haven’t found any evidence to support the book’s claims about specializing. And yet, I advocate specialization quite loudly. What gives? The difference is context. If you are selling commodities, specialization might be a good bootstrapping tool, but it must be quickly abandoned otherwise it will interfere with growth. Any growth or profit advantages that specialization offers will eventually be overcome by a reversion to the mean effect. Again, this is true in the context of commodities. (Detail on this in How Brands Grow) Consulting offered by the indie consultant is not a commodity, so even though Trout and Ries wrote a book that isn’t supported by academic research, they’re not wrong about how the idea of focus can be beneficial! As you can see from my clunky explanation here, I have not mastered how to elegantly articulate some of these ideas, but this is still a reasonable example of how context starts to play this outsized role at the hypodermis of expertise. Again, there are 3 layers of expertise. The hypodermis is nearly infinite in depth.

The Dilemma

Here’s the thing: until you pierce the epidermis of expertise, you don’t really know what it’s going to be like when you move further in. But also, once you pierce the epidermis, it gets way more interesting and you get more degrees of latitude, especially with respect to recruiting complementary supporting forms of expertise. This can be quite fascinating! This is a big part of the challenge of specializing. You can see what you can see about various potential forms of specializing, but what you see is the epidermis layer. The game might get way more interesting after you pierce the epidermis, and so what seems like a relatively boring specialization could become way more interesting after some months grinding away at that epidermis layer.

A Proposed Heuristic

Political philosopher John Rawls proposed a thought experiment called the Veil of Ignorance. The basic idea is that those who design a society should imagine themselves behind a veil of ignorance. They don’t know what life situation or body — abled or not — they will be born into. His claim is that this would lead to a maximally just society since no one behind the veil of ignorance would want their unpredictable birth and life situation to lead to an unfair outcome for them. Anyway, we are behind a sort of veil of ignorance when we decide how to specialize. We can make an informed decision — a good decision, even — but then the chips fall where they may. Things change. New shit, as The Dude said, comes to light. This kind of change, flow, and novelty happens more in open systems than in closed systems. (I mean open vs. closed in a relative sense.) Here’s my proposed heuristic: if you want to make an initial specialization decision that is “perpetually” in alignment with what you want now, then specialize in some kind of closed system. There will be less change to threaten the perpetual-ness of your decision downstream. If, on the other hand, you want your specialization decision to intersect with more oportunity at the cost of having to tweak, change, or refine your specialization, then specialize in some kind of open system. It’s probably my bias, but I believe open systems are more likely to be genuinely fascinating, but we need to relax the expectation of stasis and be open to change. Thanks for your question, and I hope this is useful food for thought. Keep building; keep taking risks y’all, -P The next offering of the Specialization Workshop starts February 9. One reason to avoid waiting to the last minute to register is that if you want a 20% early-bird discount, I’ll give it to you. If you wait to the last minute to register, I won’t. Details: /workshops/specialization-workshop/