Nothing Specialist

Nothing Specialist

By Rachel Birdsell

I’ve been thinking about specialists a lot, lately. Specialists take a field of study, narrow it down to a particular branch, then climb out to the end of that branch and pick a leaf they fancy. They take that leaf and turn it over, upside down and then back again, and they learn everything about it they can. Every curve and bump, every notch and vein is studied. They study their leaf until they can draw it from memory, and feel it without having to touch it.

Then there are the people like me who aren’t an expert in anything. The most I am is mediocre to good at any one subject. I know a tiny bit about a number of things. But I’ve never studied any particular leaf, and have never even studied a branch or even a trunk much past the first inch or two that is sticking out of the ground. I know a little about antiques, a little about politics, a little about books. I can talk a little about art and a little more about music. I like to pretend that the reason I flit from one thing to the next is because of my Bohemian spirit. That’s more romantic than admitting to myself that, in reality, it’s just because I’m so easily distracted and so easily seduced by the promise of new knowledge.

It’s only been in the past few months that not being an expert has even slightly bothered me. I started wondering if I was missing out, and if I should be studying a particular leaf on a particular branch of a particular tree. Should I stop flitting from one subject to the next and take time to study seventh century Greek architecture so narrowly that I can tell you where the marble from a particular Corinthian column was quarried? Am I the loser standing in the corner of a crowded party, shunned because I don’t know who the emperor of Rome was in 543 A.D.? Why do I worry about clogging my already taxed brain with this? Shouldn’t I be okay with knowing that the answer is a Google search away? More importantly, why the hell am I going to parties where 6th century emperors are being discussed?

I can’t help but worry a little, though, because I start thinking that maybe the specialists, like those who wrap themselves in the minutiae of 17th century Parisian furniture or the types of upholstery fabric used in 1950s Fords, have it right. While they have their heads stuck in a Louis XIV armoire or a 1953 Victoria, they are gods and giants of the world they’ve created for themselves. On their leaf, they know almost everything there is to know. In sharp contrast, I am left looking around, astounded at how little I know, and how little time there is to learn it all.

Rachel Birdsell is a freelance writer and artist. You can reach her at or

Categories: Commentary