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What Happened to the Renaissance Man and why Specialization Fails

Updated on March 6, 2013

Adam Smith vs Diversity

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations focuses primarily on the what drives economic growth. An essential part of his theory is that the division of labor creates efficiency and overall economic growth because it breaks down operations into specialized components that promotes expertise within each isolated area.

Sounds great right?

The worst part about this ideology is that, in many ways, it’s right. He was on to something big, and business moguls like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison caught on to this principle and ran with it.

Why Specialization Fails

The problem with the division of labor is this:

  1. It turns people into slaves of their industry: If you specialize in one thing, what happens when you want out? Do you have the option to spend years learning a new trade – sure! And plantation slaves had the option to run North too.
  2. Efficiency drops: I love to fish. But if I fish all day every day what happens? I get bored of it – I start to hate the sight, smell, and taste of fish. I no longer desire to catch fish, and ultimately, I become a crappy fisherman.
  3. Craftsmanship is lost: What’s craftsmanship anyway? Our society has become so caught up in specialization, we’ve lost sight of quality craftsmanship; the focus of an individual’s craft as an art, an irreplaceable skill or talent.
  4. The focus is only profit: When it comes to profit, specialization is king. When it comes to quality, surprisingly it’s the pauper. Unfortunately for consumers, free market businesses have to focus on cheap labor (which is synonymous with specialized labor by the way), cheap materials, and cheap systems. What word was repeated over and over in that last sentence? Cheap. Think it over.
  5. Lastly, it goes against our nature: Humans are not wired to be machines. Machines do one thing over, and over, and over again. We don’t, and if we do, we hate it because we’re meant for more.

Why did the polymaths of our past excel at so many things, in so many areas? Because they loved what they did! Leonardo da Vinci rarely finished his projects because he was so excited to start on the next one – he refused to specialize, often to the point of abandoning paintings, sculptures, and inventions. While I can’t advocate this in it’s entirety, it’s hard to ignore his chosen lifestyle and the impact he had on the world.


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