Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Lesson From the Olympics

The Summer Olympic Games are now over. In spite of the usual amount of controversy, the Olympics remain an astounding display of skill and athletic prowess. As I watched some of the events, I wondered what it would be like to practice for years or even decades for a single shot at winning the gold. Could I even begin to comprehend what it would take to spend all that time working on a single set of skills?

Eventually it struck me that I actually can. There is something I spent years preparing for and more years practicing. I suspect most folks who might read this have done something similar. It's called our job. While I am not anywhere near the world-class level of an Olympic athlete, the parallel does give me some insight on what it must take to become so. The focus necessary, the sacrifice in time and other activities, and the continued need for self-improvement are things we can recognize. The differences come in our personal level of commitment and the level of specialization. Olympic athletes are the perfect example of what people who have an extreme level of commitment can accomplish when they are also extremely specialized.

Whether we are talking about cells in our bodies, jobs in a society, or knowledge areas within a field, specializing allows better utility at the expense of broader utility. Football wide receivers don't usually play on the defensive line as well, and those that attempt it will be worse at both positions than if they only had to practice one set of skills and could optimize their body type for one position. In my own field, it would be impossible for one person to learn all the different possible platforms, languages, and libraries available. But I can learn the ones I work with daily very well indeed. We spend years in school learning the lessons needed to start down the job path, and years on the job honing our skills. During all this time, we tend to get more and more specialized.

Specialization is a good thing, but it also requires something in return. Red blood cells carry oxygen, but they can't fight off infection or seal wounds. Those wide receivers wouldn't be much good without a quarterback to throw the ball to them, or an offensive line to protect the quarterback. The Olympic teams are huge; each event a country participates in requires its own team of athletes. Those athletes can only excel because they have coaches to teach them, builders to make gyms, nutritionists, doctors, and on and on.

So, the greater your specialization, the more dependent on other people's knowledge you become. Since we are all specialists of one sort or another, we are all dependent on other people. It's something that I now try and remember when I'm having one of those days where the whole world seems to be working against me. I know that in spite of my personal frustrations, people made the car I go to work in. People wrote and performed the music I listen to. People built my house, created my clothes, wrote stories I enjoy, and stocked the shelves at my grocery store. I could not survive without them. The programs I write invisibly play their part in making everyone else's day go a little bit smoother.

It's a lesson I regret not learning earlier in my life: learn to work well with others because we all need each other to reach our potential.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great Post. Here (, "Dear Mr. Famiglietti")
is another dose of perspective on how great the Olympic athletes are.