The Age of Specialization

I’ve had several different careers since I graduated college, as many people have.  These days, it’s hard to find someone who has had the same career for 15 years (although some hiring officials seem to still be stuck in the 1950s).  One of the things that surprises me is the way people define others by what they do, and how some people think so much “in the box” that they can’t imagine someone doing any job other than what they’ve done before or what they’re doing right now.

When I was in college I was the Sports Editor of the student newspaper.  I did a little bit of broadcasting in college, but I was a better writer.  I decided to pursue broadcasting to try a new challenge, and this was the response I got:

“But you’re a writer.  What makes you think you can be on the air?”

Then, after five years doing radio jobs such as deejaying, sports broadcasting, traffic reporting, and assorted behind the scenes work, I decided to change careers.  Then I saw an advertisement for a job opening for a Technical Writer.  I thought to myself, “Whatever that is, I can do it.”

This was their response:  “You have a lot of experience in radio, but what makes you think you can work in Information Technology?” (I did have a B.A. in Journalism and was working on my M.B.A. at the time).

I ended up working for nine years as an IT project planner, a Technical Writer, and a Policy Analyst.

Then I decided to quit my job and work with kids with autism.

This was the response:  “You have a lot of experience in government work, but what makes you think you can provide therapy to kids with autism?”

I’ve done this now for nearly three years full-time and five years part-time, and I started volunteering for kids with autism 10 years ago.  In the meantime, I got a Graduate Certificate in Autism from Johns Hopkins.

This perception – the inability or unwillingness to grasp that people can do anything other than their very specific, specialized careers – even seems to hold true for my current career of working with kids who have autism.

Because I call myself “Coach Mike” (Mrmike.com wasn’t available), and I’m one of the few autism therapists who teaches sports and exercise, people perceive me as a sports guy.  Now that’s great, but I know that I can teach kids math, reading, and other cognitive skills as well or better than 90% of the autism therapists out there.  Just because I teach sports and exercise skills and facilitate play dates in addition to teaching children academics doesn’t mean I’m less effective at teaching cognitive skills than someone who only teaches academics.

I’ve seen well-intentioned parents hire one person for schoolwork, another person for sports, and another person for play dates.  The philosophy isn’t much different than that of the average working stiff.  More hours means more productivity.  Everybody does his or her specialty.  Forget the fact that you want to make the hours more efficient.  The people in stovepipe offices don’t communicate with one another.  It’s often considered a badge of honor to work 60 hours a week.

Same with kids.  They need X hours of therapy, but, forget about coordination and communication.  The child will be able to do math with one person, sports with another, and music with another.  Does this lead to generalization (the ability to transfer skills learned across different environments with different individuals)?

I’ve been in situations in which a child’s greatest need was math.  I got an A in college calculus, 740 on the GRE, 720 on the math SAT, and a near-perfect score on the math portion of the PRAXIS exam, which is used to certify teachers.  I have a proven track record of success teaching math to kids with autism, and I relate to the kids well.  But because I call myself “Coach Mike,” I must be just a sports guy.

First, I was just a writer so I couldn’t be on the air.  Then I was just on the air so I couldn’t write.  Then I worked with numbers so I wasn’t creative.  Then I worked in IT so I couldn’t work with kids.  Then I worked with kids so I couldn’t get a “real” job.

The point is that people often define people by what they do.  Maybe there are some people who are so specialized that they’ve had the same job for their whole career and couldn’t do anything else, but hopefully most people understand that it’s not a bad thing to be versatile, adaptable and flexible.  Being able to transition in and out of various types of careers, as well as subtypes within those careers, is actually a good thing.  It’s a little shocking to think that there are many “senior” decision makers (who probably have too many “senior” moments) who would rather have someone with an overly specialized background (i.e. someone who has done the same type of job for 20 years) than someone with a proven track record of success and the potential to transfer skills across different disciplines and relate them to one another.

I can’t stand to have someone sitting in an office who has done the same thing for 30 years, telling me, “Well, you don’t have the background we’re looking for.”  It’d be like an NFL general manager saying, we’re only going to acquire players in free agency who were first round draft choices ten years ago, while overlooking the actual performance of the players since the draft.

You see this in the government.  They hire people the way colleges accepted students 40 years ago – strictly looking at the background or accomplishments of the person.  After students weren’t able to succeed in the real world, colleges wised up and decided that students needed more than a good G.P.A. to succeed in life.  Then they started taking into consideration the extracurricular activities students were involved in.  Then they made sure that those activities were legit, and that applicants did meaningful things within those activities.  Having a broad range of interests should be an advantage in life, not a disadvantage.

I’m convinced that most government offices would rather hire someone who has a particular background, even if that person has not been particularly successful in that field, than someone who has proven to be successful in multiple disciplines.  I call the first group of people the donut eaters.  The high point of their week is the staff meeting, a non-sensical, time-wasting practice during which not much gets done except people get to hear their voices.

I can’t even fathom the possibility that my skills wouldn’t transfer to another area.  Meanwhile, many people can’t visualize anything other than someone doing what they are currently doing or have done in the past.

Motivational speaker Tony Robbins has said that the amount of unpredictability in life is proportional to the amount of happiness you experience.  In other words, doing the same activities all the time becomes boring, while trying new things, even if you have to take some risks and get outside of your comfort zone, leads to greater fulfillment.  Except for the donut eaters.

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