““Show me a specialist, and I’ll show you a man who’s so scared he’s dug a hole for himself to hide in.”
“Almost nobody’s competent… It’s enough to make you cry to see how bad most people are at their jobs. If you can do a half-assed job of anything, you’re a one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.”
—Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano
Player Piano is about America following World War III, set in an era when automation rules everything. The novel is an early 1950s science fiction classic about a society one could realistically imagine our present-day eventually falling into. It’s a vision of dystopia, and a forward-looking warning to humanity. Written almost six decades ago, its messages still ring relevant as the broad trends of our society continue to move in the direction the novel cautions against.
In the narrative, everyday people are no longer required to do much because they are no longer required to work. They’re fed, housed, and the struggles of survival have effectively been removed. But when machines run everything, and only a precious few humans in the upper class are tasked with making the big decisions which keep the automated systems running, the common man has no sense of purpose. The world’s former labor class is forced to simply exist without passion or motivation, and the true fiber of their lives is effectively snuffed and controlled by the decisions of the uppers. What is the point of a person’s life once you take away their desire to work, to succeed, or to find passion through bettering their existence?
In its full form within the story, the above quote reads like this:
“Paul, your father tells me you’re real smart.”
Paul had nodded uncomfortably.
“That’s good, Paul, but that’s not enough.”
“Don’t be bluffed.”
“No, sir, I won’t.”
“Everybody’s shaking in their boots, so don’t be bluffed.”
“Nobody’s so damn well educated that you can’t learn ninety per-cent of what he knows in six weeks. The other ten per cent is decoration.”
“Show me a specialist, and I’ll show you a man who’s so scared he’s dug a hole for himself to hide in.”
“Almost nobody’s competent, Paul. It’s enough to make you cry to see how bad most people are at their jobs. If you can do a half-assed job of anything, you’re a one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.”
“Want to be rich, Paul?”
“Yes, sir – I guess so. Yes, sir.”
“All right. I got rich, and I told you ninety per cent of what I know about it. The rest is decoration. All right?”
There are many different takeaways from that conversation. The way I see it, the character speaking to Paul is warning against people becoming comfortable with their station in life, and rightly against living in complacency under the authority of people who claim to be “specialists” at running the system.
For some context: Paul is an upper-class guy. He’s manager of the Ilium Works, and the son of a renowned fellow who held the position of National, Industrial, Commercial Communications, Foodstuffs, and Resources Director for the United States of America. Paul’s father’s title afforded him more power than the President, and he became a man with near-complete control over the American economy. Living in his father’s shadow, Paul has made a name for himself partially on intellect and mostly on nepotism. Paul is a rebel at odds with the authoritative position he holds and his awareness of the weakening effects his family’s legacy has had on American society.
From the quoted conversation, one could extract the theory there isn’t much authentic difference between someone at the top and someone at the bottom of any hierarchy. Those at the top achieve their rank mostly thanks to the success by which they have packaged and presented what they know, and the illusion created in their favor by that “decorated” skill package. We see this in play all the time in real life, even today. Especially today.
All humans are capable of learning anything. In Player Piano, a specialist is just someone who markets the fact they’ve learned something as if they are the only ones capable of learning it. The character is suggesting it’s a meaningless title to give someone or to attribute to oneself. Paul agrees. He’s not dumb, but most of his success in life was handed to him through the clout of his late father’s achievements. That isn’t experience, it’s decoration.
Is this true in the real world in 2019?
If your pipes break in your house, you call a specialist – a plumber – but you’re capable of learning plumbing, too. You just haven’t yet, or don’t want to.
If your car breaks down, you call a specialist – a mechanic – but you’re capable of learning auto repair, too. You just haven’t yet, or don’t want to.
So yeah, the plumber and the mechanic are specialists. But what does that really mean?
A broader look at the idea would say a “specialist” is merely someone who – wrongly – thinks they are so experienced at a particular thing that they could never be replaced. Being a specialist requires great intelligence and understanding, and therefore provides job security. It is protection against replacement. It is protection against automation. I’m a specialist – surely a machine can’t do my job better than me!
Expertise also suggests the expert’s brilliance in one area will automatically translate to other areas, which of course, is not the case.
Politicians frequently appoint individuals to top-ranking jobs even when that individual has no direct experience with the department they’re about to head.
Corporations often fill senior management positions with people who served a senior management position at another company, even if the other senior position was vastly different and their former company was based in a completely different industry.
The character in Player Piano says a specialist has “dug a hole” out of desperation. They’re determined to prove they have something of value to offer that can’t be found elsewhere. They hide in that hole. It’s their job security. But a hole is a hole, nonetheless. Can a person really thrive in a hole?
If you’re going to be a specialist at something, that’s great.
“Expert status” in any field is becoming more difficult to achieve, and not as effective in the long-term as it used to be.
Our world is changing at a rate way faster than ever before in human history. We have so much to keep up with, so much to learn and understand, so much to process… becoming truly well-versed at anything is getting more challenging all the time. If you can still pull it off, kudos to you! Hopefully that thing you’re really skilled with doesn’t completely reinvent itself in five years, or cease to even exist at all, or morph into something that makes you miserable. That happens a lot.
Today, it’s important to educate ourselves about everything, as much as possible. Learn a little bit about a lot of things, become intellectually malleable, and spend extra time on topics which really interest you. You can be a ‘specialist’ in those areas and also have a vast understanding of other areas on top. Knowing a little bit about a lot of things makes a person more well-rounded, more capable of adapting to different situations and different challenges and different obstacles, and makes a person better-suited for any changes that comes up. You’ll also do better when shouting Jeopardy! answers at your TV.
Most people have no idea what they want to be doing, let alone the desire to hone in their skills on one specific niche. A huge amount of today’s high school and college students are preparing for jobs that don’t even exist as they undergo their education. They’re being prepped for unknown futures more literally than ever before. On some levels, the “decoration” we give ascribe to ourselves is becoming more crucial, as it can prove the only true measure of difference between people who are all clamoring to figure out what they are doing. In truth, the well-rounded, adaptable qualities a person offers are more and more necessary and important than a rigid specialty in any one targeted area.
My vote is for never referring to oneself as a “specialist” or an “expert,” at least not in the somewhat arrogant and antiquated way we often think of the terms. The words feel like end-games. Experts get comfortable. They think they are the best, and their way becomes law. Some become lazy and autonomous, hardly any different from the machines in Player Piano. And often, if we feel supreme at something, we’re not open to new interpretations or ideas about the subject. That arrogance can also make others hesitant to give their input, even if their ideas might be great, and that stifles growth.
How many times have you heard expressions like these:
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I think I know how it’s done.”
“I’ve never seen anyone do that. We do it this way. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”
Or, on the other side of the conversation:
“Well, he’s the expert. Seems like it would be better if we did (xxxxx), but he knows what he’s doing.”
“We called in a specialist. Just do whatever she says.”
That’s all crazy, and it’s the type of things you hear once someone has been doing something long enough and develops a reputation for proficiency.
I am a father, a business manager, a writer. I make a great meatloaf and a strong cup of coffee. I’m pretty good at jigsaw puzzles and have an extensive knowledge of music and video games. I would never consider myself an expert in any of those subjects. I’d rather be a person hungering for more, working to continue my growth and intellect and trying to avoid becoming a commodity. I can’t bring myself to demonstrate the arrogance required to call myself an expert at anything. I know there’s always much more to learn. I realize that even in the areas I know many things about, I’m likely still ignorant to the vast amount of intelligence necessary to comprise the complete picture of that subject.
I also know nothing whatsoever about way more subjects than ones I do know about.
I have absolutely no idea how a car works. Or an airplane. Or a sea freighter. I know nothing about professional sports of any kind. I couldn’t tell you a thing about Norse mythology. Or thermodynamics. Or nuclear fission. Or knitting. Or the political history of Kenya. Or The War of 1812.
I know The War of 1812 happened. Presumably in 1812. That’s the extent.
What we need is to become experts in something if we want to, while remaining open to the realities of the changing world we’re in. We need to not be afraid to throw out our own playbooks and adapt when the need arises. We need to listen to others who may see things in a fresh new way.
Life is too short to obsess over one thing. Be a constant learner. Don’t just be a cog in a machine or dig yourself into the hole of specializing in one narrow field.