Box of Crayons Blog


“Specialization is for insects” (Great Work quote)

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.
Specialization is for insects.”
~ Robert Anson Heinlein

So how do you rate?  (I think I score about 9 out of 21.)

=> What are you specializing in?  What if you were truly committed to that?  What would that look like?

=> What else can you do?  What can you do adequately?  (Adequate is what you should be striving for most of the time).

=> What’s your Great Work?  What help do you need with that?  What specialists can you call in?

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9 Responses to “Specialization is for insects” (Great Work quote)

  • Jennifer Louden

    I am clearly an insect. Butcher a hog??? How about a chicken? Roasted, that is. I’ll get back to you on the last one. Is this the science fiction writer – he was my fav when I was a kid.

    Love the Blog, Michael!

  • Richard Downes

    I agree with Jennifer; the last one is hard to claim. Actually it’s a macho list, invading, butchering, dying gallantly. When Heinlein says “a human being” being he’s clearly thinking “bloke.” But then, that’s how us blokes work. In fact I have done most of this list, excluding the invading, fighting, dying and hardest of all, balancing accounts. Never done it. Don’t believe I ever will. But I take heart from a billboard I saw out on the Western Plains on a recent trip: picture of a huge Mack truck rumbling out of a sunlit dust haze, with the slogan “They don’t write songs about accountants.”
    Specialists have more facts. Generalists like us have more fun. Look forward to your Sydney session in Decmber Michael.

  • Mike

    If you are in wilderness survival mode then, yeah, there isn’t much room for specialization. Perhaps in a post apocalyptic world the survival of the species may be determined by the ability to do everything you need to survive without help. However, in society you will quickly end up on the bottom of the earnings ladder if you don’t find something specialized to do and do it well.

  • Trisha Dodson

    I have always wanted to be a jack of all trades because focusing in on only one aspect of something makes you miss out on the many different opportunities and experiences in this wide world. I have pushed to not specialize in any one thing. Now I may not have ever butchered a hog or set a bone but I would be more than willing to do it if the circumstances called for it. I am an open person that is willing to try anything once (or twice for that matter). I read this quote and it automatically reminded me of the many roles that I play in a given day in my professional and personal life. I was even more thrilled to see that it was said by Mr. Heinlein himself, I love all of his stuff and find him to be a very intriguing man. Thank you for finding this quote, I have not seen it before and always enjoy bits like this.

  • Pingback: Rosetta Thurman » Quote of the Day


    I’m afraid I have to disagree with every comment here. The point of this quote isn’t about being a generalist or a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none or such. The implication is that the human brain has no practical limit to how much or what it is capable of learning in terms of knowledge or skill. Your only limiting factors are your lifetime, and how quickly you can pick anything up.

    If you’re not well-equipped for that…too bad for you. If you’re just unlucky, you should probably figure out how to ask for help.

    Ultimately humans have the capacity to become the closest things to gods that can ever even exist in this universe. We are, currently, the only species known in existence that can potentially do so. No jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none…but masters-of-all-trades, period.

    • Brandon

      agreed, and to those thinking he’ is referring only to Men, he said Human being “Should be able to” not that you’d enjoy it or “be good at it” but you should be able to.

  • Joe

    Focusing on specifics of the list misses the point.

    Specialization being for insects is neither insult to insects nor to humans that specialize. It is more about self-fulfillment than being worthy of the air you breathe.

    I take “Jack of all trades, master of none” as explicit envious evidence that even people who seem content to do so are not fulfilled with specializing. That quote amounts to resentment of Renaissance ‘men’. HEY! Look what I can do (that they can’t)!

    Many specialists would have you believe they’re magicians capable of something you are not. The quote is maybe spitting in the face of that a bit as a celebration of everyone’s ability (and desire, known or not) to acquire knowledge and skills.

  • Sherwood Botsford

    I can’t complete the Heinlein list, but over the course of my life so far:

    * Wired infrared lasers
    * Floated a 7000 pound granite stable table
    * Canoed 10,000 miles
    * Backpacked 2000 miles
    * Snowshoed and dogsledded 3000 miles
    * Run a boarding kennel
    * Designed dogsleds
    * Learned to use an industrial sewing machine to make harnesses.
    * Repaired canoes
    * Installed satellite dishes
    * Rewired my kitchen
    * Added a bathroom
    * Replace well pumps
    * Programmed computers
    * Taught school
    * Counselled kids and adults
    * Written a web site from scratch
    * Probably written a million or so words on forums across the internet.

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