Which are you: a generalist or a specialist? Generalists tend to know a little about a lot of things; specialists tend to know as much as possible about just a few things. I believe that we’re hard-wired to be one or the other. We either gravitate toward exploring many topics and integrating knowledge into a broad view of the world, or we gravitate toward exploring one topic we care passionately about until we become an expert.
Which style does the job market reward? In the short term, specialists are highly rewarded, especially when they’re on the cutting edge of technology or the market. (Think programmers who are the first to master a new language or artists who master a new technique.) But over time, the generalists will reap the most rewards. Here’s why.
It takes years to become a specialist, whatever your profession or passion. The implied goal is to become the best at whatever you do or care about. Specialists are (whether they admit it or not) seeking out the title of “world-renown expert” or the “foremost authority” on their subject. That takes many, many hours of study, and there is no guarantee you’ll ever be the best. Chances are, in fact, that any number of people will eclipse your skill or expertise. There’s also a risk that your area of expertise will someday become irrelevant, outdated, or disappear entirely. The world’s technologies and markets move at the speed of light these days, so your skill or talent can become commoditized or automated overnight.
Generalists, on the other hand, tend to be interested in many subjects within their field of work. They are more versatile, and that makes them more marketable, since they can be a good fit for more opportunities. They’re more easily moved into management, where they can oversee a variety of functions or experts. General Practice MDs, studio musicians, and character actors may be paid slightly less than their specialized peers, but they get more opportunities to work. Over time, their versatility pays off.
Generalists also know how to stack skills so they can do more kinds of work than their specialized peers. A generalist may be skilled in her vocation, but also acquire value-added skills like sales, training, writing, management, or technology. These extra skills can expand her marketability even further and add to her ability to earn a living or extend her career.
Pat Flynn is the author of How to Be Better at Almost Everything. He’s a passionate advocate for generalism as a path to independence and economic freedom. He writes, “Generalism allows people the freedom to become moderately skilled at a number of different things and then to put these skills on top of each other to sneak ahead, because ‘the competition,’ God bless ’em, never thought the game could be played in such a way.”
Flynn says that specialists are trapped by their desire to be the best. They must constantly compare what they know and how good they are to other people. Flynn writes, “Specialists can’t help but match their identity to an outcome, because when people are striving to be the best in the world, they’ve really put themselves in a tough situation. They’ve built unhappiness into the system, whereas generalists are not overly concerned with an outcome and enjoy engaging in, and getting better at, some genuinely good activity.” Generalists don’t have to be the best; they only have to be good enough for the task at hand.
We’ll discuss how to become an effective generalist in future posts.