Trained Incapacity: The Anatomy of Favorite Muscles and Skills

By strengthening one set of muscles or skills at the expense of others, you may become muscle-bound (or an "expert") in those skills -- and enfeebled or atrophied (a "novice") in other sets of muscles or skills. This is one disadvantage of over-specialization.

Thus, exercising a favorite muscle, or developing "expertise" (like addiction to one's specialty), may lead to what Thorstein Veblen called "trained incapacity": an extreme technical competence in deep and very narrow specialties that is accompanied by a pervasive decline in practical skills and broad-band competencies. Experts present vivid examples daily in our career management practice helping lawyers, doctors, and scientists change career directions.

This deep and narrow expertise may not have great survival value if the marketplace does not need or value it. If you neglect exercising your social skills and muscles that are needed to make contacts, "trained incapacity" may have negative survival value.

More importantly, you may no longer enjoy exercising that favorite muscles or skills. You may yearn to exercise others, but may not know where to start.

Your first step is to identify clearly your strongest skills, your most enjoyable skills, and your most transferable skills (Phase I). Your second step is to discover where your most enjoyable skills actually exist already in the real job marketplace (Phase II). Your third step is to develop a "theory of victory" and implement a plan or strategy to get paid for those skills in the real job marketplace (Phase III).