Something Borrowed, Something New

Proverbs are exasperating for three reasons: They are true to the point of being dull, general to the point of being useless, and popular to the point of mindless repetition. If you haven’t, for example, yet been told to avoid putting all your eggs in one basket, you need to get some eggs and baskets, or some friends. Likewise, it’s pretty likely that you’ve been given the “jack of all trades-master of none” speech in order get you to stop fooling around and commit to something.

Regardless of your more or less tortuous personal history, you will recognize these two ideas everywhere in society. The first one is easy -just think about the way you handle your money. If you invest it, you don’t put it in a single stock, or even in a single market. Even if you’re not so financially literate, you tend not to walk around with all your money in your wallet. Sure, you could get mugged and your house and bank broken into simultaneously, but its much less likely. By putting your eggs in different baskets, you are spreading your risk around, and making things safer for yourself.

The second proverb is so pervasive that it is even easy to miss. Take a look at any industrial endeavor and you will see what philosopher Adam Smith once promoted in his Wealth of Nations – the division of labor. As Smith noted in his example of a pin factory, production tended to go up if the workers each started making one specific part of the pin, as opposed to the whole thing. The main benefit of dividing work in this way was that people could become specialized, and so they would become better at their one specific task than they ever could be at making an entire pin.

This works because of our limited capacity to deal with complex affairs. As technology has advanced, the world has become increasingly complicated, and so we now require that people have more and more specific training to further advance the state of the art, or even to operate the current one. As a society, we are therefore tasked with educating and training people with an ever-increasing degree of specialization. This accounts for the increase in graduate programs (and students) in nearly all topics, and for the splitting of science into a myriad sub-branches. One is no longer simply an engineer, for example, but an aeronautics, nuclear, systems or bio-chemical engineer, and there seem to be as many medical specializations as organs in your body.

Sadly, what is gained in depth is lost in breadth of expertise, which explains why if I asked most of my engineer friends to help me fix my car’s engine I’m likely to get a ride to the nearest auto mechanic. It works out this way because it is more profitable for my friends to spend all their time learning how one specific branch of engineering works (and for the mechanic to focus on car engines), than for all of them to attempt being jacks-of-all-trades. That is to say, it is more profitable for them to put all their eggs in one basket.

This doesn’t mean, however, that there are no incentives to being more knowledgeable in more than one area. An argument can be made for cross-pollination – that is, that a concept or idea common in one discipline can be of great use when introduced into another. There are also personal benefits – we tend to find “well-rounded” and “cultured” individuals more interesting and appealing. Being a good carpenter as well as a good banker might seem a good idea when the entire banking industry is in crisis, to give one blunt example.

In a way, the problem of choosing how “universal” we should be as individuals has always been around. What has changed in the last hundred years is the increased incentive towards specialization, brought on by the exponential increases in complexity of our world. In previous centuries, it was possible to be on the cutting edge of several disciplines (hence the term “Renaissance Man”) while even the most gifted individuals of today struggle to keep ahead in one specific sub-branch of science. It seems that, as a third (and equally exasperating proverb) would have it, you can’t have your cake and eat it.

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