You can’t be half-pregnant: when to use (and when to be) a specialist

Sonnie Bailey

2 August 2019

I’ve worn braces at two points in my life.

The first time was when I was a teenager. The second time was soon after my 30th birthday.

The first time, my local dentist provided the treatment. I’m incredibly grateful that he did. I wouldn’t have had any treatment if he hadn’t.

My teeth were very crooked. Although my teeth didn’t end up perfectly straight, they ended up a lot better than they were. It made an enormous impact on my self-esteem. I’m thankful.

The problem is, although my treatment dealt partially with the aesthetic side of things, it didn’t deal with one of the functional issues associated with my bite. Because of my bite (my “malocclusion”), I was stripping away my gums. I would have had major gum issues over the long-run without further treatment. In some ways, the treatment also caused additional dental issues.

And so I found myself, at the age of 30, having to go through the orthodontic process all over again.

Me, at age 33, about to have my braces off

I was very lucky that I didn’t need to have surgery (a mandibular advancement). (Full disclosure: my wife is an orthodontist, and while she was studying I had about a dozen different orthodontists have their say about what their treatment plan would be. On that note: the views in this article are my own, informed by my personal experience, and not the views of my wife.)

Based on my experience, I can tell you one thing: wearing braces as an adult is more painful than wearing braces as a teenager. My understanding is that your teeth and jaw are more malleable when you’re young.

Treatment also takes longer as an adult. It took It four years of treatment as an adult before my braces came off.

On top of dealing with the functional issues associated with my bite, my teeth are a lot straighter than they’ve ever been. I like my smile.

I’m forever grateful for the dentist who put braces on me when I was a teenager. But the moral of this story is that if I’d had the means, and gone to an orthodontist in the first place, I probably wouldn’t have had to go through the long, painful, and expensive process as an adult.

This is a long way of saying that you can’t be half-pregnant.

Many general dentists market themselves as “having a special interest in orthodontics”. My local dentist was an example of this.

Being a general dentist that has a special interest in orthodontics is very different from being an orthodontist.

In New Zealand, an orthodontist is someone who:

  • went through dental school (5 years);
  • was subsequently selected by a training school to become an orthodontist (there are something like 15 new graduates/new training spots per year in Australasia; these spots are hotly contested);
  • spent three additional years of full-time study learning orthodontics; and
  • specialises in orthodontic treatment — they don’t fit orthodontics in between normal dental check-ups, preparing fillings, and the like.

Compared to a general dentist who hasn’t had this three years of special training, and has to fit their special interest along with everything else they do… do you think they’ll get better patient outcomes and have less treatment issues?

Most general dentists with a special interest in orthodontics charge patients a similar amount to ordinary orthodontists. The reality is, orthodontic treatment is unlikely to be second nature to them in the way that treatment is to someone who does this day-in, day-out. They’re probably going to have more detours along the way as tooth mechanics don’t work in the way they expected (which most orthodontics can better predict based on years of study and intuition trained by a lot more experience in this domain).

And for the same outcome, I’d expect treatment to take longer for the patient (more months, more visits).

I’m the first to admit that a general dentist with a special interest in orthodontics is going to achieve much better orthodontic outcomes than I could achieve for you. But if you were a close friend or family member, I wouldn’t recommend going to someone who dabbles in this area.

I wouldn’t want you to be like me, and have to go through the process all over again.

If possible, and if it’s within your means, I believe you should go to a genuine specialist.

Because I don’t believe you can be half-pregnant.

The same goes with other types of dental treatment. If I need a root canal, I will go to an endodontist, who specialists in root canals. Like an orthodontist, they have years of additional specialised training. They have additional equipment that will make the treatment more efficient, and lead them to have better long-term outcomes on average.

Sure, a general dentist might charge you less money for a root canal than an endodontist. But the failure rate for your root canal will probably be lower with an endodontist. And the endodontist will probably be able to give you a more accurate assessment of the likelihood of failure or success of the root canal before you decide to go ahead with treatment.

As the saying goes:

“Is it more expensive? Yes. Is it worth it? Yes.”

Specialisation makes the world go around

Another example:

I’m very familiar with the FIRE (“financial independence, retire early” phenomenon), best encapsulated by Pete Adeney, aka Mr Money Mustache.

One of the key values of the FIRE community is the virtue of frugality. If you spend less, you can save more, and you don’t need to accumulate as much money to be financially independent.

To top if off, when you’re mindful about how you spend your money and have a feeling of control over your life rather than living pay-to-pay, you tend to enjoy life more as well (or so the argument goes).

To a large extent, the lessons of the FIRE community are consistent with the messages in The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas J Stanley and William D Danko, and Stanley’s subsequent books, including The Millionaire Mind and Stop Acting Rich… and Start Living Like a Real Millionaire.

The following is an excerpt from Stanley’s book The Millionaire Mind:

I have repeatedly told people that millionaires are frugal, but many think the entire do-it-yourself concept defines frugality. Millionaires are frugal when frugality translates into real increases in the economic productivity of a household. Webster’s defines frugal as ‘characterised by or reflecting economy in the expenditure of resources’. The key word here is resources, and not just first-cost money or dollar resources. There are full-life-cycle resources associated with making a purchase or other economic decision. The large majority of millionaires are not do-it-yourselvers! They reason that it’s more productive to earn income from their vocation and use it to hire professional painters, carpenters, and plumbers.

If you can specialise in an area, and provide value to others effectively, then you are best to focus on that area (or areas) and pay others to specialise in their areas.

The technical term in economics is “comparative advantage”. If you have two tasks and two people who are prepared to work together, even if one person is better at both tasks than the other, it is usually best for both people for the person with more skills to specialise in the area they have the greater comparative advantage in, and leave the other task to their partner. This video does a good job of explaining the idea.

It’s why you should go to an orthodontist to get braces instead of a general dentist.

And as I explain later, it’s why you should go to a financial planner to get a tailored financial plan instead of an investment manager (or an insurance broker or mortgage broker or property spruiker or budget counsellor or anyone else).

Does this contradict other things I’ve written about on this blog, extolling the virtues of diversification? (For example, where I’ve written about how diversification is important – not only with investments, but life in general, how you can diversify your happiness, and about “talent stacks” and how they can help you manage career risk?) Not at all.

When it comes to engaging professionals where the stakes are relatively high, I’d recommend engaging a specialist.

At a personal level, if you’re a professional and you want to provide the best possible service, you need to specialise to the level where you don’t spread yourself too thin. Part of this relates to knowing where you can’t be half-pregnant and making sure you’re all-in or all-out. 

That doesn’t mean you can’t have lots of interests and skills, and that you can’t or shouldn’t spend time cultivating your talent stack (ie, your unique combination of skills and knowledge). It doesn’t mean that you should focus narrowly on only one domain in life. In fact, even at an instrumental level having other interests and focuses can be extraordinarily useful: David Epstein’s book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World articulates this point extremely well. There’s value in having depth and width when it comes to skills and knowledge. There’s value to being a T-shaped professional.

I’d say the key is knowing where you can and can’t be half-pregnant.

You can’t boil the ocean

One of the great sadnesses in my life is that I won’t get to live longer than my body will allow.

There is so much to do and learn in this world, that I don’t think I could fit everything I want, into even 10 lifetimes.

In this respect, I wish I were a vampire (in a world with synthetic blood, True Blood-style, of course). It would be great to be able to live for 800 years, and focus on many different projects. I’d read all the books I want to read. I’d watch all the movies and TV shows on my IMDB wishlist. I’d write all the articles and books I’d like to write*. I’d visit all of the places I want to visit. I’d have all the conversations I’d like to have.

I’d love to record an album. Maybe create some art and exhibit it. But I know those things won’t happen.

In fact, I feel like my mind and my desires are like velcro – the more I do and the more I know, the more fascinated I get by the world, and the more I want to know and explore. So I’d probably need 100 lifetimes. And at that point, I’d be asking for 1,000 lifetimes.

The truth is, I find it all a bit overwhelming sometimes.

At the end of the day, I only have on life. And as one client and valued reader of this blog (who also gave me the term “flawcast” and the phrase “sawing sawdust”) explained to me, no one can boil the ocean.

We can’t boil the ocean; we can only boil a pot.

We can’t do everything. We can’t be everything. There are limits to what we can do, both personally and professionally. So it makes sense to focus on what you’re good at, and what is rewarding (financially and otherwise), and outsource as much of the rest as possible.

If you want to be successful, by the definition of spending your time, energy, and attention on the things you really want, you need to delegate and outsource.

I’m not all things to all people, and you shouldn’t be either

I was recently asked about some of the key philosophies relating to my business. I went through my standard fare, but another key philosophy struck me, which is the impetus behind this article.

You can’t be half pregnant.

There’s a temptation to think I can provide a full, comprehensive solution to my clients. But that’s no the case.

I provide the services I’m good at, and my services fit in with a whole range of other complementary services.

I’m a financial planner: I help clients prepare plans and strategies that are appropriate for them, based on their unique circumstances, goals, objectives, values, priorities, risk tolerances, and the like.

I am not:

  • An investment manager — that’s a role for the investment managers of the funds I recommend or the firms or individuals who specialise in investment management.
  • An insurance product adviser — I don’t hold myself out as having special expertise in relation to specific insurance products and companies, and underwriting, and helping at the type of insurance claims, and refer clients to advisers who have this expertise.
  • A mortgage broker.
  • A property specialist.
  • A budgeting counsellor.
  • A life coach.
  • A therapist.
  • A magician.
  • A tax specialist or accountant.
  • A lawyer. (And even then, a lawyer is not a lawyer is not a lawyer. I can think of a dozen different lawyers I’d engage for different purposes. For instance, the lawyer I’d use for a trust dispute would be different from the lawyer I’d engage for a trust matter where there were interjurisdictional issues. I might use any number of lawyers to prepare a will or enduring power of attorney, but only recommend a handful of lawyers to prepare a will or enduring power of attorney for someone who has some level of dementia or a really tricky family situation. The barrister I’d use if I were accused of a crime would be different to the lawyer I’d use for a civil matter. I’d use a different lawyer to prepare a shareholder agreement, or review a lease. (If you want recommendations for Christchurch-based lawyers, I’m happy to tell you who I’d engage.)
  • An orthodontist.

These roles are complementary with — and not competitive to — what I do.

I’m not boiling the ocean.

And even by narrowing the scope of what I do, and being upfront about this, it takes a large amount of my time and attention. If I tried to do any of these other things, I’d be spreading myself thin, at the expense of the quality of my financial planning services.

I’d be trying to be half pregnant.

Are there areas in your life where you’re trying to be, or engaging someone who is, half-pregnant?


* One of the things I’m toying with on this blog is creating a new page/menu titled “Headcanon”. If I do, I’ll list the various books I’d love to write, and related projects I’d love to will into the world. Examples include:

  • A study into differences of how financial advice is regulated in different jurisdictions across the world, and how this maps onto consumer outcomes.
  • A short book with the working title “F(#@ is not the F word” — about how the word you really can’t use in polite conversation is “fairness”.
  • An anthology of short stories borrowing from time travel conceits from various pieces of fiction: completely different stories based on the mechanics of, for example, The Time Traveler’s Wife, About Time, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Groundhog Day, to name a few.
  • A companion piece to WEALTH: Simple Tips for Savvy Kiwis… RISK: Simple Tips for Savvy Kiwis. It would largely be a repurposing (and improvement) of my course “Plan B and Beyond: The clever Kiwi’s guide to personal insurance“, combined with my book LUCK.
  • “How to crime” (working title): a book that talks about corruption, which would ultimately be my way of processing how Donald Trump managed to become President of the US, and how he and his cronies have managed to avoid being punished (so far).
  • “Everything is awesome and we’re all going to die” — which is a project I’d be borrowing from Luke Muehlhauser, and would effectively be trying to marry the optimistic messages of Steven Pinker (Enlightenment Now) and the late Hans Rosling (Factfulness) (that we live in the best of times) with the reality that we also live in the riskiest of times. Those two sets of facts are not contradictions and don’t have to be seen that way.
  • An acoustic, stripped down version of the Oasis album Be Here Now, one of the most underrated albums of all time.
  • A thriller/mystery/romance that crackles, sizzles, and veers with dizzying verve and zeal.

In terms of willing projects into the world: what about a black and white James Bond movie, with no action and mainly dialogue, directed by Quentin Tarantino, and starring an old and grizzled Pierce Brosnan?

Other articles you may like:

Adiós, amigos!

Adiós, amigos!

Articles I never published

Articles I never published

Influencer marketing 🤮

Influencer marketing 🤮

Thoughts on AI and financial advice (April 2023)

Thoughts on AI and financial advice (April 2023)

My crystal ball is on the fritz (#AI)

My crystal ball is on the fritz (#AI)

Living in line with your values and priorities isn’t always easy

Living in line with your values and priorities isn’t always easy