Specialization vs. Diversification
Welcome back to another episode of Teaching Transformations! Make sure to tune into the boys’ esoteric conversation as they talk Liquid Death and use the definitions of specialization and diversification to prepare you for an easy retirement.
The Teaching Transformations Podcast. Join Tim Desmond Ryan Wooley as they help teachers in their late forties or fifties to design a post-academic life.
Seize the Day!
Welcome to Teaching Transformations: Designing Your Post-Career Life with Tim Desmond and Ryan Wooley.
What’s going on, Desmond?
Not too much, man, not too much. It’s one of my favorite times of the year. I just love it. It’s kind of opening up and changing and getting softer and warmer. I love it.
Weather gets nice, yeah. It change around here drastically day to day.
Yeah, I know. I can appreciate that it’s not an easy time for educators when you hit mid to late May for many reasons. What are some of the things besides me that are on your plate right now that you’re dealing with?
It’s all the end of the year stuff. There’s just a lot of events, you know, ceremonial events, and course wrap-ups and all that kind of stuff. Then, right after that is summer, and I can’t wait until all that’s over to really get summer planned out and to organize the work of anyone and everyone. That’s also when people on the team need to take their time off, so I need to account for that and plan for substitutes or whatever, so summer’s usually a really busy time for us.
Yeah, because there are things that have to be done, the technical infrastructure of the school, that can’t be done during the school year.
If there is any lull in my year, it’s really the month or two I would say that I’m coming out of because that’s almost opposite of when everyone else is. Everyone else is dragging around that time and really tired, and that’s kind of when I’m getting a little bit of energy, and I have a little more latitude to take care of like doctor’s appointments and stuff that I’ve been waiting for, but I’m always aware of how people are looking at me. I always feel this judgment, like, oh yeah, he’s just not around, he seems to be leaving early.
But you don’t sit in your office with the glass walls with your feet up on your desk drinking coffees all day.
I find there’s so much based on perception. A lot of people, it seems like, really like to judge what everybody else is doing relative to themselves and make assumptions about like, oh, they look like they’re not very busy, or, I wish I had more time to do whatever, and it’s all based on the fact that when you don’t have time, somebody else might have it and vice versa. I don’t know, this stuff just makes me laugh.
Well, I want to say that this is not a judgment because that’s the correct thing to say, but this is totally a judgment. Teachers love that badge of a busyman. They love the slap that on their arm and walk around with it. There’s so many teacher archetypes of that teacher who comes stumbling into the faculty lounge, papers flying, reaching for the coffee, like “out of my way!” Dude, we’re all in the same place, we know what the deal is. It’s like this theater that has to be put on to just show how busy you are.
Of course. And it’s certainly not limited to education, but yeah, I definitely think it seems a little exaggerated.
Yeah. I always had this shame involved in finishing my student comments early because of the judgment I was gonna get from my colleagues who were up until midnight the night before cranking out the last of their comments, like, yeah, I got mine done last week.
Because you worked hard and were efficient and got them done early.
I did two or three a day over the period of four weeks instead of procrastinating and cramming it in on the night before which is exactly what we tell students not to do.
Yeah, that’s funny.
Teachers are funny, man, teachers are funny. Well, I have an interesting conversation I wanted to bring to you today. I think you’ll be up for it. I want to say from the outset, this is going to be more of an esoteric conversation. We kind of fluctuate between these really practical, on-the-ground things and more theoretical stuff. This is something I’ve been grappling with over the past couple years, and I know it’s important because it’s what sets the stage for people moving forward after they retire, after they finish teaching, and I know it because I’m in it right now. It’s sort of an approach, and part of me wonders if I have to pick what the consequences of it are. So, you might have seen the title of the episode, and it’s specialization versus diversification. I’m talking about in the most broad sense of those words. They’re two life approaches, and I want to talk through them a little bit with you because I’m in a place where I’m not sure where I want to push, so I thought that the first thing that might be helpful is just to define what we’re talking about. Specialization is the idea that you get really good at one thing, and we all know this is the pinnacle of the profession. This is your LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Robert De Niro. You pick an industry, it’s the person at the top, and the assumption is that that’s all they’ve ever done, and that’s all they want to do, and they’re going to be the best in the world at it. Now, for ordinary mortals, it looks a little bit different, and I think, for me, it’s more about a degree or a certification. If you go and you want to get an advanced degree, you’re not taking those100-level intro courses that you do as a freshman in college, you’re taking very specialized and directed courses and programs because you’re driving towards a very specialized certification or qualification, so that’s my idea of specialization. You have thoughts on that or things you want to add for that definition?
No, I think you got it. What we’ll get into here is how much of it is by design versus naturally existing? Just to back that up, how much do we choose? Do we make a choice to really focus on one thing or not? I feel like the world pushes more and more towards specialization because we have so many choices in everything and so much accessibility to options for anything and everything that we need, so I’m talking products, services. If you’re a wine drinker, you can get wine online, you can get it at every store you go to, and there are so many people in that game from all countries, so how do you sell your wine? Well, if you’re just mediocre at a bunch of different wines, maybe that is a strategy, maybe you’ll sell a bunch of wine, but you’re not going to sell a lot of any of it, but if you become known as, like, we are one of the best Cabernet Franc out there, that’s why the world keeps pushing more towards specialization. For somebody like me, that’s painful because that’s not my natural way.
Yeah, we’re gonna get into that. Another example is even around, you know, you mentioned wine, you have to be so specialized now to stand out. The narrative is almost impossible to survive if you don’t, so here’s a very practical example. I’ve never tried this, but based on the branding alone, I’m gonna have to, and that’s Liquid Death. Have you ever heard of Liquid Death water?
I think I saw that just recently for the first time.
It’s 100% mountain water from the Alps. I don’t think the water has anything to do with death, but it’s a black can, it’s got like a screaming skull on the front, their tagline is “Murder your thirst. Protect your head from the undead.” I mean, it’s canned water, but it’s highly specialized, and maybe niche is a better word. Maybe that’s what we’re talking about, but it’s this idea that there’s so many waters out there, that this is the very one specialized water for a very specific group of people, and that’s where it feels like the world is right now.
There’s a little bit of attention getting in there, too. It would be the equivalent of one of us throwing on a neon green jumpsuit and walking into a crowd and waving our arms around like, hey, look at me. That’s related, but sometimes, if that is just water, for example, then I would argue that’s not very specialized, but it’s sort of pseudo specialized based on how it’s presented.
Yeah. They’re going after guys like me. Long hair and beards, heavy metal dudes.
But that’s strategy, so that’s also audience awareness and all that.
Yeah. You guys gotta check out the website. they don’t even have a “buy” button, they have a “hell yes” button.
Yeah, it is. Alright, well, let’s flip to the other side. Let’s define diversification. I think the idea of diversification is that if you’re highly specialized and you do one thing, you’re extremely vulnerable. If we go back to our original example, if you are a star college athlete, and you’ve spent your whole life investing in your athletic career, and you blow out a knee senior year, you’re kind of screwed, right? Because you have so specialized that maybe you don’t have any other options. If you’re an athlete, and you’re already a professional athlete and sign a contract, and you get hurt, then that’s it. This idea of diversification is you mitigate the risk by spreading it out, and you’re not dependent on any one thing or person or revenue stream. The specific example I have for this comes from the investing world, and you hear this in the investing world all the time: you should diversify your investments. Vanguard ETFs are a great example. We’re not financial planners, this is not financial advice, but a Vanguard ETF is a collection of stocks, basically all the stocks on the S&P 500, so if you were day trading, and let’s say you had $1,000 and bought $1,000 worth of Apple stock, I don’t know how much that would be, like a quarter of a share. So, you bought $1,000 of stock, and if something happens to Apple, your investment is really at risk because it’s all invested in one company. What a Vanguard ETF does is they buy percentages of every company on the entire stock market and put it into a fund, so this way, if one company goes bankrupt or has some type of problem, your entire portfolio is not at risk. If you’re looking at your own retirement accounts, whether that’s a 401K or a 503B or a Tiaa Cref or Fidelity, you can reallocate your assets, and that’s diversification. That is sort of saying, okay, I want a certain percentage in global equities, I want a certain percentage in mutual funds. The idea is you take that money, and you spread it out, so if there’s a disaster in any one area, you’re not losing everything. Does that sound like an accurate representation of our definition of diversification?
Yeah. You’re hedging. It’s like an insurance policy, and it’s indicative. If you really trace that all the way up to the strategic, philosophic level, I think what you’re really doing is you’re recognizing that there are certain things outside of your control. To your athletic example, any athlete, even the best of the best of the best, the person who worked and worked and worked and got themselves to that place, they don’t know if they’re gonna get hurt or not, that just happens. That’s life. Same thing with investing, you know, let’s say that you’ve studied the cocoa crops over the past twenty years, and you know for sure that that market has predictable movements, and you’ve studied all that technical stuff. Well, the technical stuff is one side of it. The fundamentals are the other side. That’s the weather and changes in government and in policies and all that stuff that the average person doesn’t have control over, so I think diversification is recognizing that there are certain things out of your control and building protection against that.
Yes, I would totally agree with that. From the definition, it’s probably somewhat obvious what the pros and cons are of each, but I think I’d still like to maybe skim over this a little bit before we dig deeper into how it affects us. You’ve done a pretty good job of describing the pros of diversification, and you’re hedging your bets, you’re protecting yourself against things that you don’t know. What are the downsides of diversification?
The downsides are you don’t know enough about your portfolio, the items in your portfolio, to manage them well. It was probably ten years ago I learned about the word dilettante, and dilettante is not a flattering word. It describes somebody who has fleeting interest in a lot of different topics but doesn’t really spend enough time in any of them to cultivate expertise, and I’m keenly aware of this word now because I am one. I really should just own that. The downside is, you only have so much time, and if you can’t at least attain a certain level of expertise in a certain number of areas, you’re never going to be able to leverage whatever that skill or interest or knowledge is.
Yes. I think the American equivalent of the French word is jack of all trades, master of none. That’s also not said in a very complimentary way. Let’s flip back to specialization. We talked about the downsides of specialization, being obvious in that there’s a high level of risk. You’re putting all your chips in one place. What’s the upside of specialization?
Well, the upside is you come to truly understand something enough to be able to leverage the nuances around it. Again, let’s say it’s wine, and let’s say you really understand the red wine drinker, or specifically, the Cabernet drinker. You know what they’re looking for and how to serve that up, what the options are to separate out your wine from all the rest, and the same would go for just about anything. That’s the upside of specialization is you can distinguish yourself. I think that’s really, really difficult to do for any of us. You used LeBron James as an example earlier. That’s such rarefied air, and so much of it does come down to luck and serendipity regardless of how good somebody is and how hard they’ve worked. I’m jumping ahead, but the downside of specialization besides not being protected, I think is a big one, but one that we haven’t talked about is sometimes you can fail to see connections, and that old adage, fail to see the forest for all the trees, because you can become so expert at something that you you start to live with a certain set of assumptions that non experts don’t have. Also, there’s actually a lot of research around automaticity that happens once people attain expertise, and that affects their ability to transfer. For example, let’s say that I’ve learned how to play guitar a certain way. Well, the paradox of the expert is, I may not be able to convey that to anyone else once I reach a certain expertise because for me, it’s become automatic, and I can’t pick it apart anymore, so there’s an advantage of not being an expert if your goal is to transfer and share, that sort of thing. If your goal is to be the best guitarist in the world and do nothing but play guitar, and there’s a livelihood there for you, and you can make a go of that, then by all means, put all your chips in that basket. The risk is, you can’t or won’t make it, or you get stuck in that box, and there’s no way to transfer any of that out.
Yeah, I’m with you. Let me put another example out there before we get into some of our personal thoughts on it. Let’s pretend that you enjoy playing guitar, and you think, you know what, when I’m done teaching, I’d really like to give some lessons part time whether it’s in person, online, whatever, like, ten to twenty hours a week, maybe make a little bit of money, but just keeping engaged. I really love guitar. Let’s say that out of all the guitar techniques, you’re really good at Spanish guitar, like that’s your thing. You’re really good at it, so the question is, do you become the only, the best Spanish guitar teacher in your town and therefore charge the highest rates for Spanish guitar but only take Spanish guitar students and nobody else? Or, do you diversify and say, I’m going to just give guitar lessons, and if you want to learn rock or metal or jazz or country, it doesn’t matter because I’m going to be able to teach all of those? What’s the approach? What are you thinking in that approach?
Could it be both?
How would that look?
You could be willing to give lessons on any style and be able to give lessons on any style, but you could emphasize your expertise in Spanish guitar in your advertising, in your marketing, right? Isn’t that one way you could do a little bit of both?
Yeah. You kind of stole my thunder, jerk.
I love that. I love when that happens.
Totally took my punch line! I’m gonna come back to that, I’m gonna put a pin in it. I want to come back to it. You said at the top, and I know you well enough to know that you’re definitely less towards the specialization, but yet you have a doctorate.
Yeah, and I think I’ve learned about the upsides and downsides about expertise from having achieved that. Let me just define my expertise when it comes to the doctorate. My PhD is in educational psychology with a focus on instructional technology, so to translate that, educational psychology is basically how people learn. It’s not school psychology, that’s counseling. That’s a whole different thing. Educational psychology is how people learn, and when you focus on technology, it’s how do people learn with tech, not technological systems, so that’s my broad degree. My area of research was around using an online peer review system to facilitate feedback for writers, so it’s really about what different treatments of feedback, what effect they would have on a writer’s capabilities, and I looked at what happens when we just give numbers. I read your paper, and I assign it a numeric value. What happens when I add on to that, you know, I write a paragraph, or I actually have to write out feedback for you. What effect does that have on me as a writer, when I’m offering that kind of feedback to a writer? So, it’s very specialized. I mean, if I had stayed in higher ed, I would continue to research, but honestly, most people research is sort of the same idea. We’re talking about, they create a niche for themselves in the world of higher ed, in the world of educational research, and they stick with that because there’s advantage of doing that. The disadvantage is obvious in that it doesn’t create a lot of opportunity for transfer, for connections, and that’s one reason why that part of it wasn’t the best fit for me because I would be really, really bored if I was sort of stuck within one track of research and expertise for a long time. That’s not interesting to me, but it’s also just not who I am. This topic is actually really near and dear to me because I’ve thought a lot about it. I’ve felt a lot of personal guilt about being spread across so many different interest areas, and I think finally, as I’ve grown older, I’ve accepted that that is just how I’m wired. That’s who I am. I can’t really change that, I shouldn’t want to change that. I mean, there’s a part of me that’s kind of proud of being versatile. One man’s dilettante is another man’s renaissance man, right, but I think it’s having an awareness of the upsides and downsides and hedging against your own bets. If you have personal awareness, and you really understand your own dynamics, you can hedge against yourself in a way. I can get spread too thin, and I need to watch out for that, and I need to pay attention to it on sort of all fronts in my life, so I do think there’s like a personal awareness piece to all of this as well.
I wonder, too, if you can sense like a career trajectory, and not that you took it, but I could see specialization starting out and gaining you a cumulative advantage, and at some point, that tips over to a disadvantage. I could see you earn your degree, and you get known for something very specialized within your field, and in that first phase of your career, everything you’re doing you’re getting better and better and better at. You’re building a cumulative advantage to a point. Then, I think there comes a point where now you’re kind of stuck, for lack of a better word, right? Like you said, you don’t have the opportunities, you don’t have the ability to make a lateral move because you’ve developed this expertise. Now it’s a disadvantage, and now you’re kind of stuck, and maybe for some people, that’s fine. We all know teachers who have taught the same discipline and the same course for decades, and they absolutely love it, and there are other teachers, probably guys like us, who would shove pencils in our eyeballs if we had to teach. If I didn’t teach colonial American history for forty years, I’d want to kill myself. Like I said, you’re not necessarily on, I think if you would have stayed in higher ed, maybe you would have come to that inflection point where it tipped over from advantage to disadvantage. Could you see that happening in a shorter time frame, though?
Advantage to disadvantage?
Yeah, from being a specialist.
I’m a firm believer that we learn the most in the earliest parts of a learning journey and that the further out you get, the smaller and smaller increments of gain exist, and sometimes those small increments of gain are important. I think of this when I look at resources like Wikipedia. Wikipedia is an amazing resource. It’s cultivated by a lot of people, it’s kept up to date, it’s comprehensive, it’s vast. It is not perfect, and if I wanted to be an expert at some topic, Wikipedia would not be the end all be all. It might be a starting place, but it’s not what’s going to give me expertise in something, but most of us don’t need expertise in whatever it is, we just need it to be good enough. We’re just looking for, okay, I have a garden, and I need to learn how to plant my cornrows. I don’t need a PhD in horticulture to do that, I just need to get my shit done, so like there’s that piece, too, but at the same time, corn companies need an expert guiding how they plant their crops and how they cultivate all that kind of stuff, so they need the person who has gone that distance and taken it all the way to the very end past all those fine increments of differentiation. For most of us, that’s not what we need day to day, and that’s where I think being clear on, that’s not to say, you know, if you’re the person who wants to go all the way and wants to be advising corn growing companies in fine detail about little things they can do to advantage their crop, then you need to spend that time on it, but if that’s not where you’re going, you don’t really need all that.
So, where are you going after your education career’s over?
I’m still figuring that out.
We all are. I would have to say you’re probably not going to become a specialist in something different. That would be my guess.
I think so. I have heard stories of people late in life that just get a bug and then it take a topic to its very, very end. I don’t see me doing that, but I think there’s a path for people who want to do that. I’ve heard of people who were humanities people who suddenly got into astronomy or something really scientific and rode that wave, so it’s all possible. Truthfully, I don’t like this idea of shutting doors, like, well, I’m too old, the old dogs can’t learn new tricks. I feel something defeatist about that, and I sort of refuse to accept that, but it all does come down to having a limited amount of time. How much time do you have, and what do you want to do with it? I think those are the big questions. That second one is the big question we all need to answer is, what do we want to do with our time? Do we want to spend it cultivating a specific expertise? Great, I mean, but just know that’s going to lead to one set of outcomes or one set of problems or variables in, and it’s the same go in the opposite direction.
Yep. I think what I’d like to do, if you’re cool with it, is kinda kind of come full circle here. I want to talk about where I am even though you kind of spoiled it a little bit earlier. I’m not necessarily giving advice, and like, I’m in the midst of this, but I’m starting to step back, and this is where running is great. I get so much thinking time when I run, and I start thinking about like, well, what’s the path I’m on? Where am I headed right now? To your original question, the very beginning of the conversation is like, do you have to choose? And maybe don’t. I’m calling it specialized diversification which kind of sounds like jumbo shrimp, but let me give an example. My life and my livelihood right now is quite diversified. I may have mentioned here or somewhere else that I have a profit and loss spreadsheet, and I’m into like column AJ or something for revenue streams. Now, some of those are $10 a month, some of those might be $100 a year, but I have forty-some different revenue streams that hopefully give me some diversification. A few of those include things like podcasting, doing client work for editing. Generally, I’m diversified, but then if you take some of those, I’m very specialized within those diversifications. Podcasting, for example. Almost all my podcasts have to do with being a creative or a writer. I don’t necessarily have podcasts on car mechanics, I don’t have podcasts on Netflix shows, or I don’t have podcasts on running even though that’s something that I really enjoy doing, so I’ve really specialized, and I really only do podcasts on life as creative, my editing work. I’m a certified Story Grid editor, I wrote Three Story Method, I’ve worked with hundreds of clients over the past four years, yet I specialize in dark genre fiction, horror, sci-fi, post-apoc. That doesn’t mean I can’t do memoirs. I’ve had clients who wrote memoirs or literary fiction or women’s fiction, but my specialty within my diversified portfolio of revenue is this certain type of editing, so I don’t know where that’s going. I don’t know if it’s gonna work long term, but I like this idea of picking and choosing from my diversified portfolio and then go as deep or as niche as I can just within those streams.
Well, it gives you a theme. I think that’s what’s missing if you don’t have some sort of specialization, if you’re just, yeah, I’m an editor, I edit. Well, gardening books, you know, there’s so many, so if you don’t put your stakes in the ground somewhere, there’s like nothing to hang your hat on, so I think that’s really smart.
I wouldn’t be the Liquid Death of editors pretty much.
Go for it, man.
But it really is worth thinking about now. Again, this is sort of a recurring topic that we talked about for good reason, you have time. You don’t have to make these decisions right now, you don’t have to make immediate choices, but be thinking about it. Do you want to get really good at one thing? Do you want to do a couple things? Do you want to do a couple things and then pick one that you’re really good at? Start thinking about how that might line up with the life that you want because as we’ve said before, life is coming whether you choose it or not. At some point, you’ll either leave your teaching professional or be asked to leave, and then you’re going to have to face what comes next, so if you’re starting to think about it now, you’re going to be ahead of the game, and there’s no wrong answer. Certain people are very passionate and obsessive about one particular thing, and other people really like to kind of dabble and experience different things, and there’s a spectrum there. I think just being a bit self aware and giving you some time to think about it now will probably pay off later.
Yeah, I think so. Versatility and diversification are sort of a theme. I have thought about this a lot, and I’ve had to come to terms with its connection to who I am, but I feel like that in and of itself could be a theme. It’s almost like the people who go into career counseling, right? They have to sort of be expert at, not expert, but they have to understand the whole landscape of all careers and all those possibilities and help understand the connections, you know, how you can go from this to that, and that’s pretty broad. It’s also specialized at the same time because you’re focused on career paths and how to help people navigate those, so I do think there are a lot of opportunities to sort of be both, but it’s important to know your themes and to cultivate themes. Back to your examples, you’re probably not going to get a lot of client work if people have no sense of what you really can do for them.
You feel like that’s it?
I feel like that’s it. Before we kick into the outro music, I’m glad to remember this because I wanted to mention it. As you’re listening, this is Episode 18. We had planned to do a twenty-episode season and kind of go on a summer break and then come back for season two, so this is just a heads up that you’re listening to 18. We’re going to have Episode 19 and 20, and then we’re going to take a little break. We haven’t decided exactly how long, and we’re going to come back with season two, and in between, we’re going to reevaluate the way we’re doing it and what we want to talk about. We’ve toyed with the idea of bringing some guests on and doing some different things, so between now and the last episode of season one, if you have any thoughts or suggestions, requests, please reach out and let us know. We’ll remind you again at the end of 19 and 20, but yeah, that’s what’s coming down the line.
Alright, before you turn it off, we said we were going to be mad about some of this, and I just think it’s funny because we never know how we’re going to end or when we’re going to end, you and I just sort of look at each other, and sometimes it sounds like there’s an ending, and sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t know how people experience that, but I think that’s something in season two, for me personally, I kind of want something to feel like it ended. I don’t know if other people are feeling that or not, but I just thought it’d be worth bringing up that it’s in my head since we agreed we were going to open the curtain sometimes.
So maybe what you’re asking for is some type of catchphrase that we can throw out at the end as a signal that we’re done talking.
I think we should just say alright, we’re done talking now.
Yeah, that’s clever, man. That’s really good. We’re done talking now.
Alright, that should do it.
Thanks for listening. Go to teachingtransformations.com and get instant access to Transformations, the free weekly email with the best personally curated resources to help those in their late 40s or 50s to design a post-career life.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
Transformations – The free weekly email with the best personally curated resources to help teachers in their late forties or fifties to design a post-academic life. – https://teachingtransformations.com/
Liquid Death – https://liquiddeath.com/
Vanguard ETFs – https://investor.vanguard.com/etf/
Teaching Transformations Podcast – https://teachingtransformations.com/podcast/
Intro and outro music by Penthouses. “Come to Ohio” from The Weatherman album available on most music platforms.
*Full disclosure: Some of the links are affiliate links.