The Dangers of Specialization

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The term “specialization” implies mastery in a given area. While this is viewed in a positive light, it has a negative side effect that is often overlooked: the master of one skill only possesses mediocre skill in other areas at best. This implies that there is nothing to fall back on in the event that their ability to perform their main skill is hindered.

Ideally, mastery in a specific skill allows the master to compensate for other areas in which they are mediocre or lacking in skill. Practically, however, this has some faults. A well-known example of this is Gary Graffman. Being a renowned performer of some of the most difficult piano repertoire in the past, his sprained right ring finger and following complications dragged his performing career off course.

A more common scenario would be the specialist never reaching a sufficient level of mastery, leaving them unmastered in any skill and lacking in any skills outside of their area of specialization. Specializing in an area implies that much time is dedicated to that area, sacrificing time that could potentially have been spent on other areas. This is true for a number of competitive pianists at the state level. Having interviewed some of them, they confirmed this was indeed the case. Their lack of other skills and lack of sufficient skill in music results in them attending lackluster schools of music. In other scenarios, they enter fields unrelated to music that do not interest them.

The most common perception is that sufficient specialized dedication results in complete mastery in a single area, in turn being sufficient to provide sustenance to the master. On the contrary, few people ever reach this level in reality. Many who have dedication lack talent, and those who have talent often lack sufficient dedication. Mastery indeed requires both. The majority of my interviewees practiced for several hours per day, to no avail. Their skill remained mediocre. Others, who have natural attributes that help in their area of specialization, often neglect their areas of weakness and instead choose to only further develop their strengths. Some of my interviewees were talented in the artistic and musical aspect of piano, but lacked the ability to play complex pieces. A few other interviewees and myself are talented in the technical aspect only, choosing to perform complex pieces devoid of artistic expression. The judges’ comments make it clear that both are necessary to win first place.

In conclusion, the path of specialization is a treacherous one. Because many people gauge their abilities inaccurately, they believe they possess sufficient skill to specialize in an area. This results in insufficient skill in both other areas and their area of “mastery.”

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