Specialization vs. Generalization

This dichotomy has been occupying my mental space for a while. Let’s discuss, shall we?

What happens when there aren't pretty white lines?

Finding MovNat has been great for me, in that it celebrates the generalist. MovNat maintains that it’s important to build a general set of movement skills to address any given situation, because specialization could lead to failure. Luckily for me, I’ve always enjoyed many different types of physical activities. In the summer, one week might involve any number of things such as hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, trail running, yoga, and/or swimming. The thought occurred to me way-back-when that perhaps the reason I wasn’t a better runner was that I wasn’t focused on running, and perhaps if I did, I would be.

I have no such illusions now, thank gawd. I no longer envy my friends who enter marathons. I pity them. That’s a lot of injury potential and wasted time. You could take an Olympic sprinter and plop them down in an emergency, and they may not be able to swim or climb a tree to save their lives. And yet, our culture privileges the specialists and holds them up as examples to us all. Forgive my prickliness about this, but it drives me nuts.

It sets up a terrible model. I will no sooner turn into Michael Jordan by practicing freethrow shots than he will become a better gambler by sitting at more poker tables. There’s no doubt humans have achieved many amazing athletic things by becoming specialists, but to then extrapolate that out to a wider population is downright irresponsible. How many friends do you know who’ve racked up injuries from sports or running? How many do you have? I know my knees are thanking me right about now for giving up my longer, 3x weekly routine runs. And yet, when these injuries occur, we have no idea what to do anymore because we can’t do the one thing we’ve been doing.

In psychology, this is known as cognitive specialization, which means that when you learn one way of doing something, it is very difficult to learn something similar but different. For example, you learned English in a fairly natural way, but learning another language is harder because you must relate the unfamiliar language to what you already know. Those ruts have been carved in your neurons.

Our human history has everything to do with specialization. Hunter-gatherers were generalists to a much larger degree than we are now. Sure, there was some division of labor between the sexes, and I’m sure some hunters were better than others, so maybe the less-talented hunters would sneak around to round up the prey or something. But they had to be prepared for anything.

The human hive.

Fast forward to today. 10,000+ years of agriculture and our civilization has become highly specialized. Here’s a fantastic run-down from Wikipedia (bold mine):

In capitalist societies, individual workers specialize for functions such as building construction or gasoline transport. In both cases, specialization enables the accomplishment of otherwise unattainable goals. It also reduces the ability of individuals to survive outside of the system containing all of the specialized components.

Foreboding, no? Everything is fine as long as the center holds. But then? Better hold on to your pants, folks. And be able to mend them, clean them, iron them, fold them, and replace them when they wear out.

Obviously, there are immense benefits to specialization. It frees us up to explore other things so that we can, in turn, become specialists in something. I, for one, am really glad to pay people to do certain tasks for me. Like painting. My husband tried to convince me that we could paint the interior of our house. I took one look at the high ceilings and extensive woodwork that I would surely ruin and nixed that idea. And our painter did a fantastic job in about a third of the time it would’ve taken my husband and I to suffer and argue through it.

But at what point does specialization become its own special prison? When you can’t find a job in your chosen “field”. When pushing papers around a cubicle isn’t exactly what you imagined doing with your life. When you’re injured. When you’re bored. When you feel a general lack of enthusiasm or connectedness to anything you’re doing because your brain and heart just aren’t in it anymore.

I contend that there are two tangible, amazing ways to introduce generalism into your life:

  1. Food. Grow it, hunt it, gather it. Cook it yourself. The more self-sufficiency, the better. Get to know your local food providers to give yourself a sense of connection to those who are working hard at it so you can be liberated to do what you do. Paying attention to the food you eat and where it comes from is one of the most important ways you can take care of yourself, if not THE most important.
  2. Movement. Consider MovNat’s list of skills: walking, running, jumping, balancing, moving on all fours, climbing, lifting, carrying, throwing, catching, swimming and defending oneself (striking and grappling). You certainly don’t have to take one of their workshops to play with these elements (though I HIGHLY recommend them). Try incorporating them into your next run or hike. If you take your kids to a playground, get on that equipment with them. Climb a tree. And then do it again and again until it feels efficient and fun. I’m planning on finding a local martial arts course of some sort to work on the combative elements of that list, something I’ve never considered missing from my life until now.

Of course there are a million other things I wish I could do to generalize more and to be more self-sufficient. Hunting, fishing, canning, sewing, and knitting come to mind off-hand. That’s probably as close as I get to a bucket list (aside from wanting to visit Denmark and Mongolia). But it’s obvious to me how our brains crave variety and spontaneity, and maybe—just maybe—if we can channel that need in positive ways, then the negative ways won’t rear their ugly heads as often.

Are you diversifying your life?

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3 Responses to “Specialization vs. Generalization”

  1. If you’re looking for something that incorporates a lot of your “Moving” list, you should see if there is a capoeira group in your area. It’s loads of fun and the training workouts and the roda “fights” are always something new. It’s the only martial art I know where being on all fours is an accepted way to move!

  2. Fabulous post, Karen. You are so right.

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