[PMC] Narrow in service of broad or deep

Quick tophat: Thanks for all the feedback on the “your first 100 relevant subscribers experiment” I mentioned in yesterday’s email. Lots of y’all are into it, so I’m definitely into it. I’ll spend the rest of December doing some planning and commence the experiment in January. I’ll send weekly liveblog-style updates on the experiment as it goes, and if it works I’ll get a beta-priced coaching cohort together to extend the test and make sure the framework is generally useful.

Also, I was going to give a door prize to the first person who spontaneously identified the link between the email subject and the music video still I included in yesterday’s email, but nobody did, so the door prize remains unclaimed.

Anyway, onto today’s email.

What About Polymaths?

I sometimes get questions from y’all about polymaths, or links to articles extolling the virtues of polymaths.

I rarely find any kind of specialist vs. polymath debate interesting. In fact, I’m pretty sure that debate is a waste of time because… well, let me lay out my thinking for you.

I often say this about expertise: Specialization is a voluntary narrowing that is in service of a future wider impact. You subtract until your focus is narrow enough to penetrate into the hypodermis of a mystery, then you recruit the needed resources from any corner of the world to unravel that mystery and synthesize an effective, complete solution.

This is exactly what’s happened with my very narrow (very “meta”) focus on specialization.

At the superficial layer of expertise (what I call the “epidermis of expertise”), my thinking was “Specialize, stupid! Just do it! It’s great for everybody!”. This was superficial advice based on a superficial understanding of the problem.

I remained narrowly focus and reached the next layer of the problem; the “dermis of expertise”. The problem become more complex, and required a more nuanced solution.

Actually, the problem was always more complex, it’s just that I didn’t realize this until I got past the epidermis of expertise.

The dermis of expertise is where you maintain the narrow focus, but you start casting your eyes towards the horizon, seeking additional helpful resources, be they skill, adjacent or non-adjacent expertise, or anything else that helps you solve the problem.

And as you continue on to the deepest later of the problem (the “hypodermis of expertise”), you start to recruit these other resources and incorporate them into your solution.

This is how experts transform an initial narrow focus into a complete solution to a difficult, complex problem.

It’s very much like a hypodermic needle. It’s narrow and sharp to allow it to easily penetrate deep, but once deep in the skin it releases its contents which diffuse broadly into the surrounding tissue.

This models how I became interested in risk, risk tolerance, and risk profile.

I initially focused on how self-employed software developers can use specialization to their benefit, but ended up needing to learn about risk tolerance (to name just one non-adjacent area of expertise), and the best place I found for doing that–aside from some academic research on prospect theory–was the world of professional wealth management.

Does this make me a non-specialist?

Not at all! This is how specialization works!

You go narrow so that you have more than a snowball’s chance in hell of getting past the epidermis layer of the problem, and once you are past that layer you eagerly go broader in terms of how you solve the problem.

Does this then make me a polymath? Nope. I borrowed the expertise on risk from the world of wealth management, but I didn’t master that expertise. I just use it to make my specialized expertise better, and my specialized solution more robust and complete.

So here’s why I see the “specialist vs. polymath” debate as a waste of time. It takes a rare special case (the truly successful polymath) and compares it against another rare special case (the irrelevant specialist).

Both are edge cases that don’t help much in terms of suggesting best practices that apply to more common cases.

In other words, it’s rare for a specialist to find an interesting, complex problem that lies at the dermis or hypodermis of expertise and then resist recruiting a broad range of resources in search of a complete solution.

The specialist is always looking outside their specialization. They do this not out of boredom or lack of discipline. They do it to build an effective complete solution to an important or expensive problem.