April 27, 2015 by Dymphna 6 Comments

‘Whoops,’ said the master accountant


Have you chosen your area of speciality, or was it chosen for you? Life gives us smaller and smaller windows of opportunity to truly master something. We need to be proactive about it, or the choice will be made for us.

Once upon a time it was possible to know everything.

You still had to be a freak – like Galileo or Da Vinci. But if you put in enough study, it was possible to be more or less across the entire body of academic knowledge.

You could have a grasp on physics and engineering, a workable knowledge of mathematics, an understanding of the finer points of political theory.

Even the basics of medicine weren’t out of reach then.

In the renaissance, a broad knowledge base became an ideal. The Renaissance Man should understand science, recite poetry, participate in athletics, have reasonable debates about politics and diplomacy.

(The Renaissance Woman should be able to darn socks AND make pleasant chit chat… in case we’re romanticising the past too much.)

Taking a narrow interest in a single field was frowned upon. It made you a less interesting person.

FUN FACT: Universities are called Universities because they were designed to give a young student a ‘universal’ education – a broad schooling in everything worth knowing.

Things have changed. Now, a mastery of knowledge just isn’t physically possible. It’s probably not even possible to be across multiple branches within mathematics.

Humanity keeps hoarding knowledge into bigger and bigger piles. From the top of one you can’t even see the others.

And so now we live in the era of the ‘specialist’. The specialist doctor – the surgeon, the ear, nose and throat specialist, the proctologist.

Can you imagine devoting your entire professional career to a single part of the human body? Don’t they get bored?

It might be nice to romanticise a time when there were brainy folks who knew everything. But most advances in civilisation have come about thanks to specialisation.

It’s just efficient.

If each lawyer needed to be across all aspects of taxation say, it would place physical limits on the amount of knowledge that society could have about tax.

It would be limited to a single head-full.

But if you divide some of the lawyers into corporate taxation specialists, and some into trust law specialists, then you can effectively double the amount of knowledge that is possible.

This ‘division along lines of specialisation’ is one of they key advances of human society. It made a whole raft of things possible.

For me it’s an important thing to remember.

To start, it reminds me that I don’t have to do everything myself. In fact, I shouldn’t even expect that I could.

As a property investor, I have a team made up of agents, property managers, accountants, lawyers, project managers… the list goes on.

I’m only able to achieve the things I do – both in terms of the number of deals but also the quality of those deals – because I have specialists I can trust.

I know I can’t do it alone. And I don’t even try.

(I am working at a certain scale. If you’re only doing one or two deals a year it might be possible. Maybe you could do 5 if you’re some sort of Galileo investor…)

But the other question I ask is, what’s my speciality?

What am I going to master?

Because I think we live in a time where life is only long enough to master one thing (and even then, only if we apply ourselves).

So we need to be careful about the choices we make.

… if we are even making the choice ourselves.

It’s like I have a friend who’s a great accountant. Fantastic. She’s got great skills, and her bosses love her. Her skills are ‘highly valued in the organisation’.

Only thing is, she doesn’t love it. She doesn’t actually find it that interesting.

(I hear you girl.)

She’s much more of a people person, and she’s more drawn to HR. She’d even like to have a crack as a graphic designer.

So she’d like to get out of accounts and into something more interesting.

But her bosses need her where she is, and so each time she brings up the idea of moving, they offer her more money.

And she takes it. We all like more money. And so she spends another year in accounts.

But her mastery is being chosen for her.

Before long, she’ll have accumulated some highly valuable, highly-marketable skills. To do anything else will mean turning her back on all the benefits that those highly-marketable skills bring her.

It gets more and more expensive every year.

And then at some point, there will no longer be time. The mastery in her life will have been sealed.

And I know there’s always time to learn new skills. Trust me, this old dog’s learnt a trick or two.

But there’s a difference between learning a skill here and there and becoming a master in a craft.

In an era of specialisation, we need to chart our course early and stick at it. Maybe there’s scope to change tack a couple of times, but that might be it.

But the big thing to watch out for is that your area of specialisation isn’t being decided for you.

If you’re not excited about where your career is taking you, the sooner you take action the better.

Knowledge grows faster than life expectancy. We have less time than we think.

Has anyone else turned their back on some marketable skills to forge a specialisation somewhere else? 

How do we make such big (and expensive) changes happen?