Is it better to be a generalist or a specialist?
I started thinking about this question after seeing Dave Epstein’s new book, Range, mentioned many times in the past week within the productivity and intellectual corner of Twitterverse. The book is making a case for generalists (“people with range”) in this era of specialists. I didn’t end up reading the book as I’ve gotten the gist of it from the couple of resources linked up at the end of this post.
But the question remains interesting.
I can sum up my thoughts so far as: Be a generalist in your consumption and specialists in your production.
Notice the plural noun. I’ll get to it in a sec.
But first, an important dimension to consider when thinking about it: time.
What is the timeframe we’re talking about? At what stage are you making this decision? How long do you do “generalist”? In what context? Do you stay specialist until you die?
I’d say this: Only specialise when you have found who you are currently trying to help. And do it every time you find an audience.
OK, let’s look at some concrete examples.
The common context where we use these terms are in career choices. I.e. should you be a “full stack developer” or “backend developer”. Should I pick a language? Should you “do JS” or be a “NodeJS developer”.
For that I’d say: think who.
Instead of being “the WordPress guru”, be “the web guy for stay-at-home moms who wants to start an online shop” (and slap WPCommerce on it for example).
Instead of being “a cake shop in East Jakarta”, be “the cake shop you go to for anime-themed custom cakes”.
Instead of being a “mobile developer”, be “the girl who starts with Java and Objective C, but picked up Kotlin and Swift on the job. Then created an app that gets 100k downloads in her last workplace”.
That’s a strong positioning.
In the context of hiring, that is both general and specialised enough for HR to project your trajectory. In the context of colleague and professional settings, people know they can rely on your capability to pick up things and deliver. Always think about who you’re serving here.
Consume generally and produce specifically for those you can serve.
Generalist x specialist are not either-or. They are not mutually exclusive and they are not once-and-for-all.
The world changes all the time. You cannot specialise at one thing and hope to be done with it. You are never going to finish learning. Especially if you are part of faster-paced fields and industries.
Life is large. We are large. No one is one dimensional. We contain multitudes.
The complexity that is human nature — the fact that we don’t exist in dichotomies, that we’re all infinitely complicated compilations of many different and sometimes conflicting thoughts and beliefs.
You cannot specialise without generalising. But there is no limit on what you are generalising in.
Tinker, experiment, meander, wander, gather, collect, connect, play, sample, observe. Always give yourself permission for these activities. Make time for them.
Always be on the lookout for your WHO. Be a specialist in whom you can apply it for. Keep spotting them.
To get the most value out of specialising, make the population of that audience as small as possible.
Be a generalist inward and specialists outward.
No one can compete with you on being you.
Most of life is a search for who and what needs you the most.
— Naval (@naval) November 13, 2016
You build up your talent stack by generalising. You let the intersections appear. Then let the world know about it. Keep tinkering. Keep showing up. Iterate.
Let me unleash a small dose of armchair philosophy here.
I think we all specialise at something whether we are aware or not. Depends on the context and level of magnification.
We live in a world with increasing and overlapping data & information. Everything is interconnected. Everything is interwoven.
Technology bleeds into physics bleeds into psychology bleeds into economics bleeds into history bleeds into anthropology bleeds into social science.
And us human is at the centre.
You build a stronger foundation and gets to be more agile to absorb and learn when you see how your little piece fit into the grand scheme of thing. If you don’t zoom out every once in a while, soon you won’t recognise where you thought you were. You won’t be able to keep up and keep your edge.
Adjust your lens. Stay relevant and strategically aware.
- Do Generalists Really Triumph Over Specialists? David C. Baker and Blair Enns on whether or not the book is worth reading.
- Cedric’s summary. Thorough and methodical as always.
- Trails for going further down the rabbit hole:
- The hedgehog and the fox
- T-Shaped person
Also published on Medium.