On Being a Specialist at Work and a Generalist in Life
Thursday June 13th, 2013
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Some of you may recognize these words from the 19th century poet Rudyard Kipling. I will come back to them, and particularly to the phrase “the common touch,” in a moment.
Given that Kipling composed these words more than 100 years ago, and that none of you were ever compelled to study his works, you are more likely to have heard this rather familiar modern refrain: “We live in a world of specialization.” In my brief remarks to you today, on this wonderful and joyous occasion, I want to try to tie together these two seemingly unconnected notions -- specialization and the common touch -- to see what significance they may hold for us in this mad and highly competitive world.
But first I offer my most sincere congratulations to each of you graduating today, and to your loving and supportive families. To have gotten this far along in your studies in the most sophisticated and challenging of programs, you and they have had to make many sacrifices. That is why today should be one of great celebration and joy and . . . relief.
It is fitting and appropriate, too, at the outset, that I thank Ryerson University for bestowing this most prestigious honour upon me. Even before today, Ryerson has had a very special place in my heart. It is the centerpiece of our proud, internationally renowned city. I have spent most of my life living and working in downtown Toronto, mere minutes from this thriving campus. For me, Ryerson represents the very soul of the city. Without it, Toronto would be a faint, diminished shadow of itself.
Now, if I may, I wish to turn to my twin subjects for today: specialization and the common touch. In emphasizing specialization, I do not intend in any way to suggest that I favour a specialist over a generalist education, or to imply that one is inherently more valuable than the other. There are luminous examples of both, often in the same person. One of the greatest minds of the 20th century, Sir Bertrand Russell, was, among many other notable things, a mathematician and a philosopher and a poet. However we choose to categorize him – as a man of many specializations or as a generalist extraordinaire – he will always be regarded as a permanent wellspring of wisdom and knowledge and inspiration.
You will likely have a different professional trajectory than that of the great Bertrand Russell. When you start your careers after graduation today, you will be in much the same position as I was in when I graduated from law school. You will be viewed as a specialist in your chosen field, just as I instantly became upon my graduation a specialist in the profession of law.
In fact, my legal career began as an articling student in a prominent downtown law firm more than 50 years ago when law firms were quite small, even the largest ones, and lawyers were mainly general practitioners. This was true even in the large corporate firms. Litigators, those who practised before courts or tribunals, were also generalists. Within the first few months of my articles, however, I realized that to be efficient as a lawyer I had to know at least one area of law really, really well. In other words, I had to specialize.
In that area of specialization, I aimed for one thing only: to become so proficient in my field of specialization as to be able to answer any question without having to do any research first. Seemed like a simple recipe for success to me. So I left my comfortable, very hard-to-find articling job, and returned to law school, this time in pursuit of a Master of Laws Degree in Labour Law. My goal was to be a labour law specialist, and I achieved that goal in fairly short order. So far so good.
Then, to borrow a phrase from the poet Wordsworth, “reality fell upon” me. I soon learned the hazards of specialization first-hand. I confess that I was rather naïve; I had grown up in a small rural Alberta town, Pincher Creek, about the size of this campus, and a lot less busy. My supervising professor would have described me as callow and feckless. He also referred to himself in these terms, although that was far from the truth.
As a young lawyer in the big city I mostly socialized with classmates and peers. It was simple. There was a reason for this: they were the only people I knew in Toronto. Now, as I think back upon it, I remember our conversations as being in the main self-congratulatory. We spoke to each other as insiders about successes, rarely failures, and about personal accomplishments. It took no time at all for me to discover the truth about these social occasions; they were boring at best, and self-aggrandizing at worst. But merely learning this was a key first step in my analysis of who I was and where I was going. All of us go through this stage of self-identification. The second came a few years later, when I began to make money.
When I was earning enough to need the advice of a good tax advisor, I engaged the top person in the field for a consultation. Following the two-hour meeting, I decided that the advice, though earnestly provided, wasn’t what I expected or needed. I didn’t feel right. I didn’t understand, or even remember, anything the tax expert said to me. The only good part was that he didn’t send me a bill.
So I just decided to forge ahead on my own, and, as time passed, I felt myself becoming a more and more careful observer of all the professionals who I came into contact with, especially the ones regarded as most fulfilled and successful. And likeable. What I discovered was that, no matter what their particular specialization happened to be, they had one thing in common: the common touch. They could relate to people at all levels. They could, to return to Kipling, “talk with crowds” or “walk with kings,” and not be changed by either experience. It was all one. They were not phoney or insincere. They spoke in simple, direct, ordinary language on just about any topic, no matter how complex or sophisticated. They made time for anyone who needed them, regardless of social class or stature. They spoke down to no one. They were at ease with themselves and with others. People were happy in their company.
In short, they were good communicators. They seemed to embody the notion that good values, born of loving families and friends, as well as good education, are the processes by which they related themselves individually to their friends and colleagues and communities. And in return, people of all walks of life related right on back to them. They were leaders, and they had the common touch. They were leaders, because they had the common touch.
President Barack Obama’s first appointment to the Supreme Court after becoming president was a woman of Hispanic roots and immigrant parents who had grown up in the Bronx. Her name is Sonia Sotomayor. After she became a federal judge (she was already a judge before she was elevated) she kept her ties with the Bronx, frequently visiting her old grammar school and high school and giving talks to Hispanic student groups across the country. When Obama called her to formally offer her the spot on the highest court in the land he asked her to make him two promises: to remain the person you are, and to stay connected to your community. “Happy to oblige”, she replied.
The question for today is how do we acquire and then maintain this not-so-common, common touch. Specialization of the kind you and I have acquired does not make it easy.
Specialization at work narrows your field of contacts. It restricts your areas of interest and exposure. To use the modern vernacular, it is a limiter. It shrinks your world, makes the circle smaller. You must be alive to that in the years ahead, for unless you make a conscious decision to counter it you will fall prey to its allure. Most or all of us here today view our specializations as signals of success and achievement. We have every right to do so.
But not everyone feels that way. If I had a dollar for every derisive lawyer joke I’ve had to endure in my long career, even from those whom I count as best friends, I’d be. . . well, I’d be wealthy.
I love the law; I love every bit of it, and I am also proud to have developed more than one specialization along the way. The simple point I wish to make is that specialization, by itself, doesn’t mean anything of any enduring worth or value. It doesn’t make us authentic or honest or kind or empathetic or loyal. And it certainly doesn’t imbue us with the common touch.
So, some simple, practical advice. Treat all people with respect. Treat them all alike: the young and the vulnerable; the disabled and the elderly; the rich and the poor; the star and the outcast; those above you and those beneath you in social or financial status. Treat them all alike, as though they were your sisters and brothers. Be available to them when they’re in need, even when you’re busy or tired. Listen to them. Learn from them.
Develop hobbies, read books, listen to music, keep fit, eat properly, take care of your health and appearance. Keep up to date on business and politics and sports. Go to the theatre, the movies, and the symphony. It’s not difficult …. just don’t try doing all these things at the same time.
Beyond all else, find time for your family: your spouse, your children, and your friends. They also keep you grounded. They are your lifeline to the world that matters most. They will be the first to tell you if you get a little headstrong, and they will remind you daily of what true loyalty means and where it lies.
Keep your network of friends as diverse as you can.
Oh, and I mustn’t forget, get a dog, preferably a Labrador Retriever. Better yet, get two. They are excellent company, great listeners, and they keep you grounded.
In a professional career you will without doubt spend long periods of time with clients or customers. These meetings may or may not occur in tense situations. My experience has been that you can’t talk shop continually during these sessions. Sometimes the topics will vary, and stray from your field of expertise. When this happens -- I do it deliberately -- remember that the people with whom you’re working will feel less stress and tension when the subject changes to a more relaxing topic. You will probably soon be the leader in these situations. On reflection, your clients will see you as having shown good judgement and common sense. They value these attributes greatly. Many people will know the subject matter of your specialty, but perhaps only a few of them will have your good judgement and common touch. That will set you apart and become your hallmark, your gateway to a future of limitless horizons.
I wish you every success in your careers. Do well, but don’t ever “lose the common touch”. If you make that solemn commitment today, and keep it, then “Yours is the earth, and everything that’s in it.”
Thank you so very much.