The student asked the master the secret of success in his trade, and the master replied, “I work very hard and do one thing well.”
“Is that all?”
“No. I become even better at doing that one thing.”
“But there are so many things to do in the world?”
“That is the trap you should avoid, to try and do all things.”
I heard a story about a woman trader who was very enterprising – or distracted depending on how you look at it.
This woman started selling timber from a big yard near the city and soon all the builders and carpenters were beating a path to her door. Her business was booming when she - after two years - suddenly pulled out of the timber industry and started importing vehicles from Dubai.
As her old customers were recovering from the change, the car business was doing well and was soon thriving. This trade went on well for a year or so before she got out of that too and started importing new clothes from Bangkok.
Imagine the shock of her friends when they would call her about buying timber only to be told that she was in her third business after selling timber!
For some reason, this woman always made money in whatever business she did and soon top people in the country were ordering their clothes from her. She made a pile of money in the clothes business until in a trip abroad, she met an industrialist who persuaded her to coordinate sales of his beauty products in East Africa.
At the blink of an eye, our lady trader had signed on the dotted line and done away with the clothes business. The woman currently runs a thriving tours and travel company, her sixth company since she got out of the timber trade ten years ago.
This raises the question, is it possible - or even necessary - to specialize in business? Or even at work? Who is right, this trader or the master who advised his student to specialize? Companies are increasingly looking for people who can multitask – a euphemism for being a beast of burden with no specialization other than doing all the tasks thrown at you.
It is a misplaced sense of competence - in trade, school and work -and a gross waste of resources to try to do all things. Education systems in Africa need changing so that we can encourage specialization. Lack of specialization in our schools runs the risk of resulting in citizens who are jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none.
Can countries choose a few of strengths and specialize in them to world class standards? Would our economic productivity be higher if we specialized instead of trying to be jacks of all trade and masters of none?
Would we be happier innovators instead of grudging consumers, as is the case today? A traveller will never get to his destination if he keeps going off the path to follow other pursuits. Mull over that.
Edwin Maina is a social commentator