Generalist and Specialist

We start our school careers by exploring many areas (divergence) before we are asked to make a choice in college about the one thing we are going to focus on (convergence). This could be business, engineering, law, medicine, design, or what have you. Even within those disciplines, we may even narrow down our choices to finance, accounting, management, computer science, computer engineering, graphic design, etc., then we go out into the “real world” looking for jobs in our knowledge domain. We get hired by organizations in our field of expertise, and, if we do our jobs well, it won’t be long before we are promoted to a managerial role, which is a generalist role. If we continue checking off all the right boxes and if we “get lucky enough”, we may be promoted to an executive position not long after that, whose job is to essentially lead a team of specialists in an organization, which, again, is a generalist role.

As you can see, the typical career trajectory starts in school where we learn about a wide variety of subjects and things, and ends in an organization. In other words, we are hired to do one thing that we specialize in when we begin our careers, and are “rewarded” by doing something entirely different from our area of expertise. Of course, the other option is to keep doing what you’re good at in your current role while declining the promotion, but that could mean stagnant financial growth. Most of us choose to get promoted rather than doing the work we planned on doing with all that formal education.

The idea of generalists and specialists is rooted in biology. According to Wikipedia:

A generalist species is able to thrive in a wide variety of environmental conditions and can make use of a variety of different resources.

A specialist species can thrive only in a narrow range of environmental conditions or has a limited diet.

I came across a quote attributed to the Greek poet Archilochus:

The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing.

This quote became popular in the 1950s when philosopher Isaiah Berlin made it the title of his essay, which went on to become the basis of understanding about generalists and specialists. Berlin contrasts hedgehogs that “relate everything to a single, central vision” with foxes who “pursue many ends connected…if at all, only in some de facto way”. He likens generalists to the fox and the hedgehog to specialists. You can think of the hedgehog as having one main perspective, while foxes have many viewpoints. Although this might be a gross oversimplification of this dichotomy, it nonetheless forms a good starting point to learn about it further.

As Berlin suggests in his essay, we can be a fox by nature, and a hedgehog by belief (or some other way). Please note I am talking about generalists and specialists only from a work standpoint. Talking about how we can be both generalist and specialist from a psychological standpoint (the gap between who we are and what we believe, for instance) is an altogether different conversation to be had, which is beyond the scope of this piece.

A generalist is one who dabbles in many disciplines and is competent, but not the best since they lack a depth of knowledge in all of those disciplines. Where they lack in depth, they make up for it in terms of perspective, but more on this later.

A specialist is one who knows more about their area of expertise than most, and while they may have deep knowledge about their domain, they lack the perspective that comes with being a generalist.

Both generalists and specialists look for patterns, and because they look at different things, they discover different patterns.

Here is an example from that article:

Where the specialist studies a particular tree in the forest and understands it better than anyone, the generalist sees the whole forest and knows a little something about each of them. The specialist could figure out what is needed to help the one tree thrive where it is. The generalist can observe the tree might better survive in a different part of the forest.

While the specialist is trained to look for patterns within their domain area, a generalist looks for patterns across many different areas. In my experience, specialists tend to be analytical and logical, while generalists focus on synthesis.

Dan Pink posits in his book, A Whole New Mind, that the future of global business belongs to the right-brained. I think that the generalists tend to be more right-brained than their logical counterparts for the aforementioned reasons.

For specialists, their expertise can be a double-edged sword in that it can also limit things for them and their ability to see it. Because specialists are narrowly focused, they can easily view things with a “man with a hammer” syndrome. While specialists may be great at “vertical thinking” by design, generalists are in a better position to think differently. This can be crucial in creative problem-solving because they are able to see patterns across different disciplines, which makes them better at thinking laterally. They tend to be more creative and are able to synthesize their ideas better. While the specialist may have “control” over their area of expertise, a generalist can be thought to have a different, broader, more inclusive, overall perspective.

We have examples of generalists and specialists all around us. For instance, doctors can be both generalists or specialists. A general physician can be thought of as a generalist, while a dermatologist is a specialist who can help resolve your skin troubles. While you go to the former to diagnose basic health issues, they can either solve the problem themselves or recommend you to the right specialist depending on the health issue and its gravity. It all depends on the health challenge you’re dealing with. There are times where you have to go to a specialist for treatment. While the generalist could diagnose you to a certain, broader level, only the specialist can diagnose you specifically (if need be) and help you overcome your health issues.

While the specialist may have deep domain knowledge about their area of expertise (such as finance, IT, or education, to name a few), a generalist typically has “broader” knowledge that could apply to a wide variety of areas because the knowledge and skills imparted are transferable regardless of individual or organization type. The latter is somewhat true in my own case, but more on this below.

We look for experts when we need specialists. For instance, if you want a logo for your business, you need a graphic designer (a specialist). You won’t look for someone who “also designs logos”. You want someone who designs first and foremost, and then may have a secondary focus to their work (or not). The more specific our needs, the more we need to look for specialists.

Examples of specialists include Jiro, a world-renowned sushi chéf; Federer, who is arguably the greatest player the tennis world has witnessed; or Corthay, a fine shoe-maker; or Daniel Day-Lewis, one of the most prominent actors in films. What’s common with these specialists is that they have a deep knowledge about their area of expertise, be it making food, playing tennis, making shoes, or acting. In other words, they specialize. They can go places with their expertise that a generalist can only dream of; such is their depth of mastery. They have also spent a lifetime honing these skills.

When it comes to making career choices, there is no right answer as to whether you should be a generalist or a specialist. They both have their own scope. It depends on your skills, interests, and what you do with them. Comparing the two would be like comparing apples and oranges.

While a generalist has the opportunity to learn about a variety of disciplines and apply those transferable skills (such as project management, effective communication, etc.) in diverse organizations and industries, specialists have an opportunity to learn about a single domain of knowledge in depth. The trouble is that by the time one acquires all that knowledge, that job/role/function may become obsolete. The idea of specializing in one thing over an extended period of time is also consistent with Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule.

Generalists learn how one thing works with others in a system or framework. They have a better understanding of how things fit together relative to one another from a big picture standpoint.

Generalists are also thought to be able to better navigate uncertainty than their specialist counterparts.

The article also points out:

In today’s uncertain environment, breadth of perspective trumps depth of knowledge.

While specialists have to go deeper in their domain, I would argue that generalists have to go deeper within their domain as well, but their domain is process (as it is in my case), not content. So, one could also think of generalists as specializing in something. Generalists seem to have more work opportunities because they are not limited to any one discipline. In any case, in today’s ever-changing technological landscape, it would be a safer bet to be a generalist than a specialist.

As the noted American science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein has written:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

While Heinlein looks down on specialization, I think it has its merits for reasons mentioned earlier in this piece.

Even if we happen to be specialists at work, there is no reason why we can’t be generalists outside of it. Because we are all multi-faceted beings capable of many things, we should be able to do a wide variety of things. Why then should we restrict ourselves to a few things?

We should be able to do a wide variety of things, and we don’t have to have deep expertise in all the things we do. We need to be competent enough to do the things without becoming an expert at it. For instance, you might learn to pick a lock in case you get locked out of your home. You could learn this skill without having to learn to pick every lock.

For instance, one reason we have interdisciplinary teams at work (typically led by generalists) is because we need specialists to bring their different areas of expertise to solve a common, bigger challenge; they are each bringing their different talents to the table. As Henrik Kniberg from Spotify says, “It’s like a jazz band — although each musician is autonomous and plays their own instrument, they listen to each other”. In other words, synergy is created when the team comes up with ideas and solutions better than the individual team members operating on their own.

Now, it’s not possible to know everything about everything. I think we all have to find our own answers. For me (at the risk of sounding simplistic), the answer lies in knowing something about everything (generalist) and knowing everything about something (specialist). It’s not possible to know something about everything, so it’s a metaphor, but I think you get the idea. We can form a deep expertise about certain things in the course of our lifetimes, while we can at least learn (and practice) the big ideas from other disciplines. We can also learn how those big ideas relate to our disciplines, which can help us do our work better.

I think we need to be both generalists and specialists. Let’s call it the generalized specialist (I think Shane Parrish might have been the first to come up with this term). A generalizing specialist is one who knows more about their area of expertise than most (specialist) and also knows something (big ideas or key principles) about everything else (generalist). They can then bring those ideas from other disciplines to their own practice, thereby enhancing their own area of expertise.

Take my example. I am a generalizing specialist. I am a management consultant. My work has to do with the people and process side of things. Essentially, the work I do involves process improvement in terms of improving individual and organizational effectiveness and taking their performance to the next level. So, within the field of management consulting, I am a specialist. At the same time, my approaches can be applied to almost any organization type or industry. I also learn different things from other disciplines and use it in my own practice, further expanding my generalization.

I think the world needs both generalists and specialists as they each have their own strengths — they both solve problems in a dimension that the other cannot.

As far as choosing one over the other for a career choice, I don’t think it has to be mutually exclusive. We can be a generalist in many things and a specialist in a few things. In fact, most people (myself included) who are generalists are specialists in something.

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