There is a tradeoff between intensity and extensity. The specialist is a believer in intensity, he gains his advantage by knowing something that no one else knows. The generalist is a believer in extensity, he gains advantage by making multiple bets. The specialist places more value on his own rationality, the generalist places more value on blind luck. Who is right?

First, with the help of several writers, I will make the case for intensity. In another post, I will make the case for extensity.

The business author MJ DeMarco thought that a scattered focus leads to scattered results. The polygamist opportunist, instead of having one business that thrives, has 20 business that suck. The sports enthusiast who likes to dabble in many sports would lose against a professional in any one of them. In the 48 Laws of Power, Greene reminds us that our energy is finite.

In Law 23: Concentrate Your Forces, he insists that a single rich mine that is deep is more valuable than multiple shallow mines.

Consider how the Rothschild brothers maintained their power while the rest of Europe’s elite crumbled in the 19 thcentury. After inheriting their father’s empire, the Rothschild brothers spread across Europe, each setting themselves up in a major city. This made them vulnerable, but they maintained their unity, and this was key to their success. They married within the family and kept close contact with each other, whereas other families fell apart.

“Beware of dissipating your powers: strive constantly to concentrate them. Genius thinks it can do whatever it sees others doing, but it is sure to repent of every ill-judged outlay.”

- Johann Von Goethe.

And Schopenhauer said: “Intellect is a magnitude of intensity, not a magnitude of extensity.”

Casanova attributed his success with women to singlemindedness. When he was imprisoned in Venice, he focused all his energy into thinking about his escape. The guards tried to stop him by putting him in different tunnels when they discovered the tunnels he had been digging, but eventually, he managed to escape.

“I have always believed, that when a man gets it into his head to do something, and when he exclusively occupies himself in that design, he must succeed, whatever the difficulties. That man will become Grand Vizier or Pope.”

- Casanova

Tesla refused to have a single master. His efforts were all over the place, and he never found the stability he craved. Intensity is the precursor to quality, whereas extensity is the precursor to quantity. But quantity cannot rise above mediocrity. Gracián warns that while the man with general interests wants to have their finger in every pie, they have it in none.

Another modern writer who wrote about the importance of intensity was Cal Newport, who said that deep work is more important than shallow work. Contrary to those who tell you that the best way to work is to accomplish multiple tasks with minimum effort. Newport points out that shallow work is easy but requires little brain power. Deep work is difficult but rewarding.

People are tempted to switch tasks because of boredom, but it is boredom that one must embrace to go beyond their limitations. Deep work is necessary and is becoming more important in a world where attention spans are fading away. The person who can focus their attention for an extended period is rare, and therefore, more valuable.

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

- Steve Jobs

To engage in deep work, one must learn how to construct a schedule that allows for the maximum amount of deep work, and the minimum amount of shallow work. If shallow work, that is, work that is characterized by extensity (doing multiple things at a mediocre level) is necessary, then one should not abandon it, but figure out how to spend the least amount of time on it. For example, Jung used a bimodal system where he alternated between long hours of deep work and shallow work.

In Mastery by Robert Greene, the author of The 48 Laws Of Power builds on his previous argument when he observes that young people are in a hurry to make money and will jump from one field to the next in the hope of hitting gold, but this is short-sighted. If you are too impatient to hone a specific craft, then you will never have enough insight and ability to be in control your creations. Instead, you settle for a superficial understanding of many subjects.

To be creative, you need to delegate basic tasks to the subconscious so that you can have the head space to think of new strategies.

Both authors stress the need for deep work, but both acknowledge that shallow work is unavoidable.

If we want to take the gist of what Greene and Newport have said, we can conclude that there are two forms of work: deep work and shallow work. To become good enough at something that you can make a creative contribution, you must spend long hours, distraction free, on one thing.

But If you are an artist or an entrepreneur, marketing is a shallow form of work that you cannot avoid, unless you already have customers to sell to.

Since deep work requires a large commitment of time, it is important to make the correct choice with regards to what you choose to work on. The best way is to switch careers when you have made a small investment and did not feel that your work was engaging enough.

Ira Glass, host of This American Life, was an intern, who moved on to become a tape cutter. He then got the chance to host some segments on air and won awards for them. He got what he wanted with patience and hard work. The best chess players studied the game for much longer than novice chess players — about 5 times more. The main theme that Newport stresses here is time. Nothing comes easy, nothing comes without a significant investment of time.

Da Vinci worked on many unrelated subjects on an extremely high level. He was a genius. Most people are not like Leonardo Da Vinci. Most people need to focus one thing for a long time to get good at it. Greene’s point is this: do not spread your attention on multiple things — unless you are either a genius, or content with achieving mediocre levels of competence.

Focus by Goleman continues the tradition of telling people about the benefits of deep work or extended focus. His advice is to listen to your intuition. Your automatic thinking can get you in trouble if allowed to behave without restraint, but sometimes, your automatic thinking is a true measure of your personal values. Unless you pursue something that you really want, you will be unable to muster enough willpower to be great at it.

“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.”

- Maya Angelou

Peak is a book that commentates on the 10,000-hour rule. The latter contains the original study of professionals who were monitored over years. The discovery was that an extended time of deliberate focus was necessary to experience a marked improvement in skill level.

Flow is a book that argues that deep engagement in an activity, where one loses track of time, and their sense of self, can traverse the line between order and chaos at the right moments, and can measure their progress in precise ways, is not only the key to higher levels of mastery, but the key to happiness.

The specialist has many arguments in their favor. Insofar as one’s personal psychological health is concerned, the benefits of achieving a flow state while engaged in deep work for long hours appears to be the golden path towards mastery. Embracing a single identity and having a stable vision of the future is a psychological relief. Despite the difficulty of acquiring higher levels of mastery, and the endless hours of intense focus that are necessary, it is at least psychologically reassuring that one makes progress along the mountainous road they are on. In contrast to the generalist, the specialist is self-assured and calm, they are convinced that eventually, they will have acquired an invaluable asset in the form of a unique skill, or an advanced level of knowledge, that will be valued by others.

But the specialist is not without flaws. The marketplace does not care if the individual is engaged in deep work or becomes an expert but may instead reward those who swing the bat the greatest number of times. Blind luck, rather than expertise, is the real determinant of success, measured by material wealth.

Originally published at

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