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If I have a friend that spreads their interests too thin, gathering a large body of superficial knowledge related to many topics, I'd probably use the phrase "jack of all trades, master of none" to describe them.

Are there any phrases or idioms to describe the opposite? Someone suffering from an extreme overspecialisation, who is so singular in their expertise it perhaps damages effectiveness?

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    +1, especially for reminding me of the tale of the student (a Wahoo, I believe) with 4 Fs and one D- who justified his grades to his parents with: “Folks, it was simply a case of concentrating too much time and energy on one subject.” – Papa Poule Mar 12 '16 at 1:49
  • There are professionals that are overspecialized but could not be referred to as any of the below. I'm not sure if you are describing a mental illness here or not. Niche players are some of the highest paid out there. I wonder if maybe you are describing a "fan". – user116032 Mar 12 '16 at 17:37

11 Answers 11

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A one-trick pony would be appropriate here. Merriam-Webster defines it as:

someone or something that is skilled in only one area

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    That is a great answer, I can't believe I forgot one-trick pony. – Kanga_Roo Mar 12 '16 at 13:48
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A person who knows everything about nothing

The following quote is attributed to Konrad Lorenz

Philosophers are people who know less and less about more and more, until they know nothing about everything. Scientists are people who know more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing.

Example: Ask him about the mating habits of the coelacnanth, and he will tell you everything there is to know, but he has no other topic of conversation, and is never invited anywhere.

  • That's the quote I immediately thought of as well. ;-) – Jim Mar 12 '16 at 4:08
  • A Zen master would quip, "Nothing (as in, the void) is everything" – ottodidakt Mar 13 '16 at 15:53
3

Consider,

have a one-track mind

Fig. to think entirely or almost entirely about one subject. Adolescent boys often have one-track minds. All they're interested in is the opposite sex. Bob has a one-track mind. He can only talk about football.

McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs

He has a one-track mind. All he ever talks about is trains and railroads. YourDictionary

Most folks have a one-track mind, and I even want to say, a "single-minded obsession" about "note-taking".

From the standpoint of productivity, "note taking" is just a very small part of the information gathering equation.

Most folks don't know there is another important part, and that's, "note-making." Quora

have blinders on/be wearing blinders

Blinders are coverings placed over a horse's eyes which prevent the horse from seeing anything that isn't straight ahead. When wearing blinders, the horse can't see anything to the sides. This helps prevent a horse from being scared by things it can't see.

The idea is that if you're wearing blinders, you have a very narrow view of things, and you aren't aware of everything that's happening around you. If I tell you to take your blinders off, I'm really telling you to look at everything around you and make an informed decision based on all the information available, instead of just making decisions based upon what you know by only looking at a small part of the problem.

english-test.net

Not to be able to see the big picture

the big picture also the whole picture

the most important facts about a situation and the effects that it has on other things Melissa's opinions don't take the big picture into account. Usage notes: often used after look at: When you look at the big picture, a slight increase in unemployment is not significant.

Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms

be sitting too close to the screen to [take in/see/get/grasp] the whole picture

WordReference forums

be looking through the wrong end of the telescope

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There is a phrase in the weeds (and often lost in the weeds) that means

(idiomatic) Immersed or entangled in details or complexities.

Wiktionary.org

Similarly can't see the forest for the trees

to be ​unable to ​understand a ​situation ​clearly because you are too ​involved in it

Cambridge Dictionaries Online

2

Sounds like such a person is someone who is on the verge of “Specializing Themselves Right Out Of A Job” as per the title of the linked article from ‘fastcompany[dot]com’.

In paragraph 11 of that article there’s an interesting quote from Carter Phipps, the author of the book ‘Evolutionaries' about how the “cacophony of fact overload” can lead to “miss[ing] the big picture” and which might capture somewhat the notion that you’re after:

"We are data rich and meaning poor."

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The most familiar term is probably myopic. It's usually used as an adjective, though it can apparently be used as a noun. I Googled this sentence, for example:

He was a myopic, poor and miserable political creature (as all apparatchiks are).

Such people are often said to suffer from tunnel vision and may be described as narrow-minded or near-sighted. I like to describe them as wearing blinders.

The word nerd has various meanings but is often used to describe people who are so focused on a particular task or vision they may have surprisingly little knowledge of the "real world." It's very common in the IT arena (e.g. "computer nerd"), with Bill Gates the most famous example by far.

P.S. There's also a term for a personality disorder which manifests itself by an obsessive interest in or focus on a particular thing. I wish I could remember what it's called. Ironically, the answer may be myopia. However, I could have sworn there was another name for it (or perhaps I'm thinking of a different personality disorder).

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He has adopted a stovepipe approach (or mentality)

In engineering and computing,"stovepipe system" is a pejorative term for a system that has the potential to share data or functionality with other systems but which does not. The term evokes the image of stovepipes rising above buildings, each functioning individually. -- Wikipedia.  

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I think you can describe this person as a monomaniac:

  • person with exaggerated or obsessive enthusiasm for or preoccupation with one thing.

(ODO)

  • I was going to post with crippling overspecialization (from TV Tropes) or laser-focus (UrbanDictionary) but I think you have me beaten on this one Josh. – John Clifford Mar 11 '16 at 21:25
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    That should be mono-maniac. A mom-o-maniac sounds like something different altogether. – Lawrence Mar 12 '16 at 2:44
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Geek

: a person who is very interested in and knows a lot about a particular field or activity

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You could pejoratively state that they were an idiot savant, which is an individual of extensive knowledge in a specialized area who lacks general intelligence. Merriam-Webster's online dictionary gives this as its second definition of idiot savant:

a person who is highly knowledgeable about one subject but knows little about anything else

You could also call them a boffin, which is a British slang that is often used in a similar manor, depending on their area of interest. Oxford Dictionaries online formally defines boffin as follows:

1 a person engaged in scientific or technical research: 'a computer boffin' 1.1 a person with knowledge or a skill considered to be complex, arcane, and difficult: 'he had a reputation as a tax boffin, a learned lawyer'

  • Hello, Autumn. Please add citations (and links, if possible) to the definitions that you quote in your answer. Thanks! – Sven Yargs Mar 12 '16 at 19:23
  • I added citations to the sources of the language quoted in your answers and links to the Web pages where they appear. It's important to cite the sources of quoted language in an answer; neglecting to do so results in a form of plagiarism. – Sven Yargs Mar 15 '16 at 19:12
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Yes, The phrase "a jack of all trades but a master of none", is a corruption of the phrase "a jack of all trades but a master of none is still better than a master of one".

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/jack_of_all_trades,_master_of_none

  • This doesn't answer the question – AndyT Jul 26 '17 at 15:02

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