We should all be worried about the £20 note, which features the eighteenth-century economist Adam Smith staring fixedly at workers toiling in a pin factory. Smith argued that this factory would produce far more pins if workers specialised in just one or two tasks – such as straightening the wire or sticking on the head – rather than doing all the stages of pin-making themselves. The result was his most famous invention: the division of labour.
But this idea is one our most disastrous inheritances from the Industrial Revolution. It has led to the belief that becoming an expert in a narrow field is both what we should expect from our jobs, and what we should aspire to. So we rarely have the privilege of doing a whole task from beginning to end like a craftsperson.
Is being a specialist the best way to use our talents? The world certainly needs heart surgeons, and we can gain personal satisfaction and social status from exercising our expertise. Yet the cost of being a specialist or a high achiever, is that we forgo the benefits of being a generalist or wide achiever, which are to nurture the many sides of who we are and to use our multiplicity of talents.
We can find inspiration for becoming a wide achiever in the great Renaissance generalists such as the fifteenth-century Italian polymath Leon Battista Alberti, who was an author, artist, architect, poet, linguist, cryptographer, philosopher and musician. He was apparently a gymnast too: with his feet together, he could spring over a man’s head. And he wrote a solemn funeral oration for his dog.
There are two classic approaches to being a wide achiever. One is to pursue Karl Marx’s ideal, which was to work part-time in several careers simultaneously, ‘to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.’ Today this is called being a 'portfolio worker' – you might be an economist three days a week, then spend the rest of your time as a freelance wedding photographer. The other option is to become a 'serial specialist', following one career after another. I have chosen this path, working as an academic then a gardener, a financial journalist then a carpenter – I am currently a writer.
We must question the veneration of the specialist that has become the workplace norm over the past 200 years. Let's start by erasing Adam Smith from the £20 note and replace him with a wide achiever. I nominate the impressively-bearded textile designer, artist, essayist, poet and political radical, William Morris.
This piece originally appeared in Psychologies Magazine.