Solitary confinement is for a human being—or any other social animal—torture. In the absence of interaction with others, and in the absence of stimuli from our environment, it doesn’t take long for us to lose the line that tethers us to sanity. But another torture for intelligent, sentient beings is task confinement.
As a symbol for modernity, the idea of “specialisation” is apt. The most “advanced” civilisations are the ones that allow their members to trade specialised production for general consumption. For example, in an advanced society, one can make a living as a scholar of typeface through history because one is able to trade the capital his expertise generates for essential goods like shelter, food and security. In a primitive society however, a person cannot overspecialise because it comprises their survival. He can spend an hour pursuing arbitrary interests, but the rest of the day is spent on essential duties than no-one else can or will do for him.
So increasing specialisation seems to be the symbol of advancement for collective society—provided its yield can be traded for other essential goods. But what about the individual?
A few years ago, I got into the idea of essentialism. Compressed into a motto and an image:
The image is from Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, which advocates doubling down on the essential and deferring or foregoing the non-essential. He argues that more gain and more fulfilment is to be had from the focus of energy and resources into few tasks than the distribution of the same resources among many. This isn’t a new idea. Marcus Aurelius, two thousand years ago:
““If you seek tranquillity, do less.” Or (more accurately) do what’s essential … Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better.
Because most of what we do and say is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?””
“A key point to bear in mind: The value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve.”
I agree with McKeown’s philosophy and Marcus Aurelius’. In part. Specifically, strong focusing is less a way of life than a phase of life. My own experience, and my vicarious experience of the lives of others, tells me that we cycle through phases of exploration and commitment, of diversification and prioritisation. We do many things, then we find something important and do only that, over and over and over.
But the problem with modernity and specialisation is that it bucks this trend. Consider the traditional life path. We learn (some) fundamental things in early education. Then at around sixteen to eighteen years old, we are compelled to narrow our focus. Instead of studying as many disciplines as possible, we study a few. Then we choose to continue learning about one of those discipline. Then we find a niche within that discipline and continue to spend resources learning about it. Then we leave education and get a job which continues to compel us to specialise. We need narrow, particular skills to perform in said job. We need niche-focused competencies to function as part of an organisation. The result is that we are fit for a slender selection of tasks, and so we are confined to only those tasks.
We do many things, then do one, and that’s the end of the cycle. Which is a problem because the human mind, to be happy and engaged, needs multiple avenues of activity. It needs paths to flit between, multiple routes to explore and make progress within.
For the health and happiness of our spirit, we need to be free to interact with others and with the environment we’re in, and possess a sense of autonomy. For the health and happiness of our minds, we need to avoid task confinement. We need to be more like Jack of All Trades and less like Jill Who Can Do One Thing. This is, perhaps, one of the prime virtues of the Era of Interconnectedness and Information—we can learn as little or as much as we want.