In Defense of Dilettantism


Gains from Multiple Competencies

Odds are good that there are unrealized gains from more people being competent in more than one discipline. While specialization is undoubtedly a foundation of so much that we value, and it ought to continue to be, we probably don’t have too little of it.

As deep specialization leads the most talented and most knowledgeable further down esoteric rabbit holes — albeit important ones — our experts become less competent at communicating about, collaborating on, and evaluating work across fields.


Given how much specialization there is, there is low hanging fruit for those that can traverse specialties and live at the borders between them — with each foot in a different realm.

While we can hope for talent that can reach expert status in more than one field, and we will likely continue to see some such polymaths, there probably won’t be many of them. There are much better odds that there will be more people who are quite good at one thing and not half bad at another.

It’s a bet worth taking that incentivizing talented people to develop useful knowledge in additional fields in which they may not be the best but can still be perfectly alright will yield dividends.

At Present

Academia and the professions encourage specialization.

The demand for specialization slots people into areas in which they have the highest comparative advantage. For professionals, this will often mean one’s “best subject” from a GPA standpoint.

Based on academic incentives, it’s rational now to avoid risky experimentation in what are not one’s best subjects.

Where We Can Take This

It’s a bet worth taking that we can realize gains from incentivizing and not penalizing students for seeking to be: an ‘A’ Mathematician and a ‘B+’ Historian, an ‘A’ Pre-Med and a ‘B+’ Computer Scientist, an ‘A’ Graphic Designer and a ‘B+’ Economist — and so on in really any combination of disciplines where one is extraordinary and merely ordinary.

Innovation and Competence

Within and across disciplines there are at least three key competencies:

  1. Raw Skill (literacy, numeracy, and other acuities),
  2. Knowledge (memory and experience), and
  3. Creativity (capacity for novel recombination, generation, and synthesis)

We likely prioritize these competencies in that same order as one works one’s way up the academic and professional ladder. It is only after proving one’s Skill foundation (entrance exams), that one gets to delve into Knowledge (coursework), and it’s only after reaching a certain level of respectability that one’s Creativity (tinkering) is at all accepted.

Obviously some degree of mastery and working competence must precede productivity. But we are probably too rigid in enforcing this typical path, especially since the distribution of the three competencies — as with everything else — will likely have high variance.

Raw Skill would seem to correlate with how quickly one can scale the heights of a field, but Knowledge acquired slowly is knowledge all the same. It should be considered a terrible loss that institutional incentives consign one who might be, for example, a ‘B+’ biologist to effectively be an ‘F’ biologist because he or she was likely never going to be an ‘A’ biologist.

Creativity may yet be the most undervalued competency — currently treated like a fun latent bonus that may yet be discovered in someone who already succeeded in measures of both Raw Skill and Knowledge; something that hopefully is found from time to time in some highly Skilled and highly Knowledgeable students after an institution has already finished evaluating and educating them.

The Ultimate Bet

Where this ultimately leads is a theory — again a bet that appears worth taking — that ‘A+’ Creativity coupled with ‘A’ competence in Field X and ‘B+’ competence in Field Y is a more valuable package (capable of more productive and value-adding innovation) than what we currently select for and train: ‘A/A+’ competence in Field X alone coupled with ‘UNKNOWN’ Creativity.