Specialize or Generalize? Heinlein vs. Smith (Maybe)

A lively discussion erupted at The Passive Voice about the validity of Heinlein’s famous passage from “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long” about generalization:

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, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Robert A. Heinlein

Which led to an intriguing rebuttal in the comments, pointing to Adam Smith’s emphasis on specialization in The Wealth of Nations and its importance to a healthy economy and efficient production. The discussion got a touch warm in the comments section.

I think it comes down to the question of applying Heinlein’s idea to an individual or to society. For the individual, I firmly believe that having a broad range of knowledge and skills is beneficial, and possibly life saving if not for you than for someone else. Granted, the character in the book who is speaking is older than Methuselah, and has had time and the need to learn all those skills and more, but look at what Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts used to be required to learn before they aged out of the programs. If you have a wide knowledge base, and skill base, I think you are better prepared for when life knocks you sideways and you have to re-group and possibly head in a different career direction or life-path.

However, is that best for the economy and society as a whole? There is indeed value in specialization, both at the level of assembly work and manufacture (as Smith argues most famously in the pin-makers passage), and at the level of regional markets. Why should London not have more pin makers, and Scotland more sheep-raisers? Scotland had land and a declining population of people, with lots and lots of sheep (1760s-70s), while London had lots and lots of people who could do piece work and thus earn a living at a relatively unskilled task. It was far more efficient to send wool to London in exchange for mass-made pins and other goods, and far cheaper for all parties (so long as sea-trade remained viable), than for the Scots to try to make pins for themselves and for Londoners to raise sheep in the public parks. Today, in the 2010s, we see similar specialization from places with lots of people and intellectual capital as compared to places with natural resources and physical capital. Or we did, until the ‘Internet and other related forces threw a joker into the deck.

I’m becoming a specialist of sorts, focusing on teaching and writing stories, some of which happen to be made up from borrowed elements, and others of which are taken from primary source documents (aka History). My new skills are related to that specialty, at least for the moment. With the exception of improving my shooting skills and the like. This is necessary for my employment (Day Job and writing fiction) and because not everyone has the skills or the desire to teach history. I’m no longer working on airplanes, or flying airplanes, or spending as much time hiking in the back of beyond and maintaining my orienteering skills, or crocheting, or hunting (squirrels on the birdfeeder excepted).

I depend on other people with specialized training to keep my pick-up in shape, although I do know how to change the tires, change the oil, and basic trouble shooting of the mechanical kind. The electronics? Pah. Electronics have always been my weak area, and automotive computers are no different. I’d rather trouble-shoot hydraulics, thankyouverymuch. I depend on specialized physicians for things like the Year of the Dentist, my joint problems, and other stuff.

However, many of those physicians and mechanics have outside hobbies and interests, including hunting, fishing, ranching, car-racing, playing classical music, flying planes, video games, carpentry, stamp-collecting, and the like. And I wager a number have served in the military, or have basic first-aid training, and other skills.

Adam Smith was right on the macro level – specialization is important for trade and providing more goods less expensively to more people. Lazarus Long was right when he referred to individuals and their survival, and their intellectual development. One of the greatest problems we have in the West, according to several researchers and psychologists, and one that is contributing to things like mass drug addiction and crime in the inner cities in the US, is boredom. People have nothing to do. Their jobs are dull and nothing exists outside of them. Or they have no jobs, and the government provides everything needed – except mental stimulation and things of interest and a decent education. There are no longer any challenges other than challenging other people (crime). When that’s not available, or the individual doesn’t want to go that route, why not tune into chemical bliss? It eases physical pain and spiritual and mental pain as well, at least as long as the high continues.

As I said over at PG’s place, I’m very, very lucky. I had the opportunities to learn a lot of things, and was forced at various times to make use of those skills. Today, few people seem to have those chances or teachers. Misplaced ideals encouraged schools to  eliminated vocational training and everyone hammers “go to college! Get a STEM job,” even as they decry the lack of skilled trades. The dignity of skill and of having multiple baskets for one’s eggs has been devalued over the past 40 years or so.

Who is correct? Smith or Heinlein? I think the answer is yes. Individuals should learn a lot of skills, perhaps not as their primary task – I want a focused neurosurgeon and plumber. Society needs specialists and people who do one part of much larger jobs. But society also does well when people have a range of outlets for their interests, and a range of skills that they can use if the need ever arises.

*For those unfamiliar with Adam Smith, he is considered the father of modern economics and a strong proponent of laissez-faire, meaning minimal government involvement in trade and manufacturing and other things. He was also a very clear writer, and On the Wealth and Poverty of Nations is still an excellent work. It is available on-line from a number of sources, as well as being in print.

Edited to add: Welcome, Instapundit readers! Thanks for stopping by.

29 thoughts on “Specialize or Generalize? Heinlein vs. Smith (Maybe)

  1. I saw that thread. I agree with Lazarus Long and Adam Smith. A human needs to be a generalist while a worker needs to be a specialist. The arguments were about to separate things. I still believe and love the last line about humans not being insects.

  2. “Misplaced ideals encouraged schools to eliminated vocational training and everyone hammers “go to college! Get a STEM job,” even as they decry the lack of skilled trades.”

    Not a new thing, unfortunately. I remember a kind of disdain, looking down if you will, on the students who went to the local vocational school when I was in HS back in the 80’s.

    • One of my friends went the VoTech route. At graduation, he was offered $2K more per year than I was offered by the mob to work for them, and had a better benefits and retirement package. (I graciously turned down the job offer, of course.) He earned $38K at age 19 as a draftsman, and learned AutoCAD back when it was still new.

    • I graduated high school in 1978. I was vaguely aware that I was on a college track in high school, but I didn’t really comprehend all that meant until my senior year when I had some extra time in the schedule and I put in for a course I really wanted to take: Drafting. I loved to draw ships and tanks and airplanes as a kid — not artistically, but more to the realistic/mechanical end — something I could build. I had to argue with my counselor to get into the class, and that really confused me. I finally realized she thought that was too manual, too “dumb” for me. Not only was that not true, at our small high school there really weren’t any other “advanced” classes left for me to take.

      I really enjoyed that class too, and I still use the skills when I want to build a storage shed or a deck. And now wish I had done other “shop” or manual trades classes as well.

      • p.s. Specialization has its place per Mr. Smith, but Heinlein is correct for the individual. Sure have a special skill at a master level that others cannot match and you will always be employed, but having a bunch of other skills you are at least “OK” at will help getting through life, both physically and emotionally.

      • One of the guys I hung around with in college was taking drafting. He taught me a few things that I still use today. Looking back, I wish I too had taken more of the non-required “vocational” classes.

  3. Yes, what Paladin and you said. This is incredibly obvious. How can there be an argument on it? * face palm * Of course there is an argument – there are people involved.

  4. “We really do need sarcasm, gentle teasing, and mild confusion fonts.”

    One forum I am on uses purple to denote sarcasm, teasing, irony. The problem I see with that is that it is like having to explain a joke. Takes the fun out of it, the fun being the surprise or the moment of recognition by the reader.

    On the other hand, flame wars.

  5. Both are correct, each in their own way. General skills, such as Heinlein wrote are necessary for human survival, Smith for survival of regions/countries. Look at Pakistan, they have gone whole hog into Nanotech. Look at any university with nanotech engineering, and probably 90+ % of the students are Pakis. Service industry is starting to slowly rebound, as folks ‘realize’ there has to be someone to maintain all that ‘stuff’ they don’t know how to fix, and don’t care to learn.

    • Pakistan and nanotech… Sorry, all I can think of is Mr. A. Q. Khan and the nuclear information he so happily spread to people who really do not have humanity’s best interests at heart.

      • Cuba made a national policy of research on virology and recominant DNA. As Fidel explained it, it was something they could do with their practical limits on resources.

        It’s hard to tell if anything is going on there or if it was just PR… but every now and then, I wonder…

  6. I had a heterodox thought yesterday that sexism may be beneficial to a society. If certain jobs are man’s work or woman’s work, then these social constraints will force a certain degree of vocational specialization. Once a primitive society starts down the road of specialization the benefits that Adam Smith enumerates accrue to the point where they overcome the disadvantages of sexism. (Later, after specialization has been accepted, the sexism can be safely jettisoned.) But taking the step toward specialization–however it starts–is necessary to make a society work optimally.

    RAH is partially right, there is a tension between under and over specialization that must be balanced. Mr. Heinlein did not do his own dentistry, and no doubt several dentists are grateful for his having written novels.

  7. I recently read a very interesting book, published in 1836, about the impact of technology on employment, the economy, and society…it was similar to many of today’s discussions on the impact of robotics/AI.

    The author suggested that Adam Smith’s arguments for specialization were obsolete, because then-modern industry required a very large number of low-skilled and undifferentiated workers. (His model was the textile industry)

    Didn’t work out that way….what he missed was the large number of specialized workers that would be required to support those that fit his pattern.

    • “This whoositz will put hundreds out of work! It will destroy the working class!”

      “Indeed. And Who will repair, maintain, and improve the whoositz?”


      • But those two skillsets are not interchangable, nor they require equivalent amounts of labor.
        Something that paid ten people a decent living being replaced by a single job that provides one person with an excellent living may be a benefit to the economy as a whole. It’s certainly a benefit to the one person. And it’s certainly to the detriment of the 10 being displaced.
        In short, people are not widgets.

        It’s like the current “just learn to code” mantra. Maybe 10% of population has aptitude for it. For most people, it simply isn’t a realistic option.
        (I actually have the base aptitude, but I’m also dyslexic. Searching pages of printout for a misplaced semicolon is a special kind of hell for me. Given the choice between doing this or digging ditch… Hand me the shovel.)

        But as to the specific example given, it should be noted that the textile industry in the US is profitable, but it also employs 1/6 as many people as it did just a few decades ago.

        • “the textile industry in the US is profitable, but it also employs 1/6 as many people as it did just a few decades ago”…indeed, and the textile machinery of the Industrial Revolution improved productivity per person-hour by far more than 6:1. One thing that happened was that people were finally able to avoid decent clothing, it was possible for a poor man to have more than 2 worn-out shirts…but Peter Gaskell (author of the book I mentioned) was correct that in the long term there was no way that added demand could make up for the additional productivity and thus keep people employed….IF one restricts the analysis to the textile industry and the other industries that existed at the time. But what he wasn’t foreseeing that it would become possible (for example) for ordinary people to have *their very own carriages*, something that had previously been restricted to the ‘carriage trade’ class…and probably this would not have been feasible as long as the motive power was restricted to the horse.

          We had an interesting discussion at Chicago Boyz about what new industries / sources of demand might emerge to take advantage of today’s (projected) extreme improvements in productivity:


          • ““the textile industry in the US is profitable, but it also employs 1/6 as many people as it did just a few decades ago”…indeed, and the textile machinery of the Industrial Revolution improved productivity per person-hour by far more than 6:1. One thing that happened was that people were finally able to ****************************avoid**********************decent clothing, it was possible for a poor man to have more than 2 worn-out shirts…”

            I’m guessing you meant “afford”, but That Damned Autospell!!! gotcha.

            • Perhaps “avoid” is correct as youngsters these days find it fashionable to dress shabbily…

  8. I might quibble with the details of The Basic Skills ought to be, the idea of having a wide, if not deep, knowledge of how to do things at least “good enough” makes sense. Even if, when applied, “good enough” is simply “lasts long enough for a specialist to take over.” Proper full diagnosis, skilled surgery, etc. won’t mean much if all the blood is on the outside instead of the inside by the time the skilled get there.

  9. Generalism and Specialism both come with costs. He who elects to generalize rarely becomes expert in anything, unless his approach to generalism is of the “keep learning” variety that: 1) acquires a specialty first, and 2) simply keeps adding knowledge about other fields and endeavors over his lifetime. Specialism — the root of a division-of-labor economy — has another cost: it induces ever more intricate interdependencies among us. As I wrote in Freedom’s Scion:

    —That’s the downside of the division of labor, Al.
    Yeah. I can see that, Grandpere. But how could we have avoided it?
    —By resisting all the temptations to specialize and to make use of specialists. By purchasing absolute self-sufficiency at the price of economic advantage. Which, incidentally, no clan or society known to history has ever managed to do.
    The incentives are too strong, aren’t they?
    —Judge for yourself, dear. Put yourself in Charisse’s place at the point when Jack Grenier moved into the area and started offering his services around. Would you have done as she did, knowing only what she did at the time?
    Probably. If there’s a lesson in this—
    —If there is, Al, no one has ever drawn it. The division of labor is the one and only path toward general prosperity. It can go to an incredible depth. A frightening depth. And it is utterly reliant upon the character and good will of the specialists. Let one critical specialty be corrupted by political forces, or conceive of a grudge against some other group, or even decide that it can rape its customers without fear of reprisal, and the destruction spreads faster than anyone can act to check it.

    History provides innumerable examples. Heinlein provided fictional ones in his early stories “The Roads Must Roll” and “Magic, Inc.”

  10. Common Sense: Sound judgment derived from experience and observation rather than study.

  11. Note the oft-overlooked word in the Heinlein quote. “able”. A human should be “able” to do many things. Do them well enough to get by. Be aware that they can. Not have them be mysteries beyond their ken, performed only by another caste. If on a day to day basis, it makes more sense to hire someone who specializes in such things rather than do them yourself, and you have the disposable income to do so, then by all means, take advantage of the moment of living in a society with secure property and individual liberty that allows for such trade relationships. But be aware that it’s a choice. A convenience of the moment. I did the sheetrock work on my first house, because I didn’t have much money and I did have time, and I’d always wanted to learn. I never did that again — because a specialist can do it faster, and by then, I had the money to pay them for that expertise. But I still know how, and I could do it if I wished to, or if a cartel drove the price up, or if I couldn’t afford them. I’m not hostage to that trade — I’m glad it exists, I’m glad there are specialists, I’m grateful for their expertise and skill. And the fact that I’ve done it myself means I appreciate how much expertise and skill is involved, and respect them as the craftsman they are.

    • Like you, I’m glad I know how to do sheetrock, and I dearly hope I will never have to insulate and sheetrock a ceiling and upper walls ever again.

  12. I’m both.

    I only manage about a third of Heinlein’s list, but can do (and have done) an equally strange variety of things at least up to journeyman level: sew clothes, embroider, draw and paint, write poetry, write novels, do machine-shop and blacksmithing, do woodworking, make musical instruments, bind books, be a museum curator, repair 18th-century electrical apparatus, do nuclear physics, and more. But by and large, I can only do one of them at a time. And when I’m doing that one thing, I look more like a specialist. And long ago, I decided I don’t do plumbing. Can’t say I’d care to sheetrock ever again, either.

    My heroes are Ben Franklin, Charles Babbage, and Ada Lovelace.

  13. Since I started playing the game of life back in the ’30s when I first opened my eyes, I’ve had time to and have done everything on Heinlein’s list except fight efficiently (Most of my fights have been horribly inefficient.) or die gallantly. Regarding the ‘planning an invasion’, OK, I’m stretching the point a bit but I’d say anyone that can play an adequate game of chess can…

    Based on my observations I see no argument twix Heinlein & Smith. Why yes one should be able to grab the helm if the specialist collapses, -but until then you let him hold the course. Yes, of course, the individual should play to his strengths, specialize, -but he needs a strong general background, a broad skill set, to best utilize his specific strengths in conjunction with the world around him.

    & I hazard to suggest that the paragraph above applies to society as well as the individual.

  14. It seems to me the ideal is to have one or two things you are really great at, a few more things you are good at, and a broader swath of things you are competent at. As long as you live in a semi-functional society, knowing how to do everything is pretty useless, and perhaps downright impossible. On the other hand, it seems like being great at one thing and useless everywhere else might be profitable, but it sounds amazingly boring.

    Though I suspect the REALLY profitable approach is to find an intersection between what you’re great at and what you’re good at, because there’s a fair chance you might be one of the best in the world at the combination. (eg, I’m sure I’m not the best in the world at my specialty, CAD software development. But it’s 90% sure I’m the best at the combo of CAD software development AND Newfoundland traditional music playing. If I could just figure out how to monetize the combination…)

  15. I’m an RN. I specialize in health care, specifically post operative recovery. I’m also a gunsmith, former infantryman, built additions on my house, re-plumbed it, re-wired it, worked on my cars….it’s perfectly normal and possible to be both a specialist AND a generalist.

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