#234: On Stones and Specialization

J’s brother-in-law B. manages an ice rink in Petoskey, in Northern Michigan. While up here this weekend we dropped in on one of the beginner curling classes. I’m immediately hooked. I think it’s the rhythm of it, the sequence of the movements, the smooth, slow guide and gentle release followed by vigorous sweeping and shouting. The individual discipline and the interpersonal one, between teammates. The small possibility of mutiny. I want to throw, I want to sweep, I want to be the skip and call the shots. I want to do everything!

I want to talk about specialization. Olympic curlers, B. says, start curling when they’re eight or nine years old. Curling has also become more and more popular as a sport, ever since it was made an official Olympic sport in 1998. I feel like you hear this story a lot: People start doing this obscure little thing for years and years, and all of a sudden it becomes popular. The field has its moment in the public awareness; the practitioners’ expertise – their specialization – suddenly becomes much, much more valuable.

If you accept this, and also accept that the world’s changing faster than ever thanks to the internet; that these specialties have less and less staying power – shorter a moment in the spotlight; that what you do for a living might be drastically different twenty, ten, or even five years from now; then one thing you might conclude is that it would be good to learn how to carry over as much knowledge from one domain into another. Another thing you might conclude is that, if you’re eight or nine years old, it would be helpful to learn things that are especially transportable into other domains – like logical, critical thinking (the kind that comes with computer programming), creative problem-solving, and interpersonal communication (since you’re most likely going to have to work with other people (and if not, then the programming thing should have you covered)).

Those are both reasonable things to conclude, especially if you’ve been listening to too many economics podcasts. I find myself often thinking in more specific predictions, like, “If Y is going to become a thing, it might be useful to learn X.” But what usually ends up happening is I’m just not interested in X (or interested in Y enough to want to learn X). I end up doing nothing. What society values doesn’t line up perfectly with what I value.

I guess that leaves me with a simple rule of thumb: Follow what interests you, and think about how it’s like other things that interest you. Think about how curling is like writing, and writing like curling. Use your specialty in one area to help you learn the other, and use the novelty of the other to help you advance your specialty.