Being a specialist or a generalists have for long lead to divise debates.
In reality both are needed for continuous growth. Both individually and collectively there are benefits of combining the two.
There is this old story about the hedgehog and the fox.. A story originated from the timeless ancient Greek philosophers:
A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing.
My personal stance is that the more we get to know about ourselves and our abilities and purpose in life, the more we understand that we are a mix of the two. Despite our human habits of having to separate each others in one box or the other.
The Modern Narrative-Specialize Early
The norm in most industries and professions has been to specialize early. To become really good at one specific thing and then climb the social status ladder and turn into a supreme leader of the universe.
(Ok, go easy Jonas, maybe not so dramatic...)
Alright let's try again.
From the tech bro's who have built software since elementary school to "The Tiger's" of the world who were gifted with a talent, environment and genes to make it in the world of sports.
"Young people are just smarter", Mark Zuckerberg once said. Resulting in a narrative that if you want to be a successful tech-entrepreneur you need to specialize early.
We tend to use these success-stories, the ones like T. Woods and M. Zuckerberg, as the norm for success. As if there is only one way to be successful, as if there is only one factor that determines whether you are going to thrive or not.
From athletes to medical practitioners, from software engineers to psychologists. The domains and areas are many where there is a tradition of early specialization.
In the book Range, David Epstein shares another perspective. A refreshing perspective for those who have believed that being a specialist is the only path to success. He brings forward the value that generalists bring to the world. Solving problems by adapting lateral thinking cross domains instead of doubling down on one particular specialty. Mr Epstein even brings forward several stories where generalists are better predictors for future outcomes compared to specialists in their own domains.
Mr. Epsteins book is especially awakening for people who identify as generalists and may have felt like being a fraud with a touch of imposture syndrome.
Hey 👋, that's me!
Are we really supposed to discuss whether you are a specialist or a generalist? Where does that lead us?
Isn't life more diverse than pictured by a debate between two camps?
Your Combined Skill-Stack
If you want to be successful in life, you have to be comfortable in managing multivariate problems at once. Especially in complex environments where your efforts is not directly connected with your outcome. Most of us operate in these conditions on a daily basis.
As a software engineer your input is not directly correlated to your output. You can spend hours, weeks and months on a project without seeing any valuable shippable output. On the other hand you can spend a few hours of work and generate wealth for a whole organization.
That is the type of role which is hard to automate, replicate and make obsolete. This is a role where you use specific knowledge and apply it in a certain domain but can also switch it to another domain to learn more.
The more complex it is to explain what you have done during a day, the more unique your role is and less likely to be replicated and automated.
Some skills — like the ability to focus, to read critically, or to make rational decisions — are of universal value. Others are a little more specialized but can be used in many different careers. Examples of these skills would be design, project management, and fluency in a foreign language.
People who are succesful seem to be able to combine the universal skills such as the ability to focus, reading critically and powerful decision making on top of an already specific combination of skills.
Take Jack Butcher as an example. He spent 10 years in corporate advertising. He had a corporate job but started to break out the parts in his craft that he found would create more value for specialized businesses. He identified the small percentage of his current role that would create even more value for businesses.
He started his own business by creating a niche he knew could work by experimenting and collecting proof of work. Later on that work started to generate revenues which was a confirmation of the value Jack created for other businesses through his combination of skills. In his case, combining design skills with the business acumen required to scale businesses.
Jack's journey to entrepreneurial success is an example where you spend years of practice and growing of skills and finally realise how you can start to apply those to help others solving specific problems.
Breadth VS. Depth
The expression "spread to thin" is often used to describe a scenario where your skillset is too broad. A situation where you cannot really apply a solution to a specific problem.
If you are seeking to create leverage. Let it be through a product, process or framework that you see can help others to solve, being too general in your skillset is mostly not a good strategy. Yet it is necessary for collecting general knowledge and find your area of expertise.
Let's say you have lived your life, just like me, navigating around and constantly having a feeling of spreading to thin. All of a sudden you find an area that you are curious about.
This is when the magic happens. This is where you start connecting dots and applying your previous knowledge and start applying your skillset to an underlying, unsatisfied need in a good market. A so called product-market fit.
Looking at the picture below that is based on Jack Butchers online lextures through Visualize Value explains the difference between a general "spread to thin" approach and specific leverage.
The horizontal axes shows the process, conscious or unconscious, of jumping around from one domain to another.
The vertical axes points out the process of adaptation. This is where you have realized and started to match your specific knowledge to an actual need in the market that you operate in or want to operate in. The wanted outcome is a result of your craft, your work, your contributions into something you can replicate and sell. Without putting in extra hours.
You create leverage where you have applied your combined skillstack to solve a specific problem. You also have leverage that is detached from your time if you can package and communicate it clearly.
Escaping From The Specialization Trap
Maybe the example above would lead us to a situation where you operate in a certain domain and where you only see a problem through one single lense. That is a sign of specialization.
Do not mix specialization with uniqueness. I have done the mistake myself of comparing myself to other peers and spent too much time feeling frustrated about the fact that I lack a certain depth or skill in my profession.
The political philosophy professor Judy Swanson points out that, despite her hyper-specialized profile, being a professor in political philosophy, she felt frustrated not being more specialized. Even though she has dedicated her life to a particular field she still have a feeling she needs more depth. Partly a reason for this is because academic departments elevate narrowness as an ideal.
The lesson we can take from this is that identifying as a generalist vs specialist doesn't help us. Especially since it is a subjective notion.
The backside of being hyper-specialized is when you all of a sudden use your speciality as a lens where you see everything through. You have created a worldview based on your experience in one particular domain.
It may lead you to the situation of trying to solve any problem you are facing with the same solution. "The man with the hammer"-syndrome is a description of a behavior where you are trying to solve every problem you face using the same tool.
What does that mean in the concept above, for specific leverage?
My view on that is that you should separate what works in one domain from what may work in another. It is naive to think that you can solve all the problems in the world with one single product.
No tool is omnicompetent-Arnold Toynbee
In a digital world where we train machines and software to perform more and more of our tasks, both in private and in our roles at work, we no longer have to be specialists performing those particular tasks.
On the other hand it requires us to think more systematically. Understanding the technology itself and how different scenarios can emerge when the technology goes wrong.
Another animalistic analogy is the one from Freeman Dyson:
"The world of mathematics is both broad and deep, and we need birds and frogs working together to explore it."
The birds he refer to are the generalists scanning the landscape whereas the frogs focus on the more closer view on the ground, the specialists.
Just like mathematics is a broad and deep subject, our modern technological landscape is even more complex with breadth and depth.
This requires lots of specialists using their deep expertise together with the birds that navigate the range of the various domains.
We are living in a world where most problems are solved through collaboration, not being an individual super genius sitting at home.
As humans we grow into the role of systemic thinkers, the empathetic leaders and the ones that connects the dots. In a world where software and AI is already supporting us and elevating our society by specializing in autonomous tasks, there is and increased demand for interdisciplinary practitioners. Gathering experience and creating a world-view based on various domains alongside hyperspecialized computers.
For further reading about being a generalized specialist, this article by Farnam Street is a must read.
You can identify as a generalist or a specialist but in the end it is how you apply the skillset you have learned that matters.
How you bring it into practice and collaborate among other birds and frogs is the key among the overall learning experience.
So where does this lead us? Here are some main takeaways that I want you to keep in mind:
1. Specificity scales
Identifying a specific area where you can apply your combined skillstack on is needed if you want to create leverage at scale. You no longer have to trade your time directly with the compensation you get.
I.e: publish a book, build an app, create digital products and sell it on Gumroad etc.
2. Generalists thrive long term
In a constantly changing world where early hyperspecialization has been encouraged there will be an increased demand for generalists. Especially in a world where number of innovations becomes rare, people who can take one idea from one domain and adopt it into another will be very unique and needed. The ability and the lack of fear of jumping around and learn from various domains will be a superskill in a hyperspecialized world.
3. Collaboration across domains
Both specialists and generalists are needed. In order for us to benefit from the great combo of the two an effective collaboration is needed. With a humble approach of applied systems thinking the T-shaped teams may be the hope for future new innovations.
4. Depth is inadequate without breadth
Just as a T-shaped team your personal profile of specific knowledge would be limited to the lenses you develop. The more broad experience you gain the more lenses you will have and your ability to re-use your depth will become a superskill.
Try to not make it too deliberate. By letting your natural inclinations and abilities drive you the journey towards breadth and depth will be even more joyful. As long as you are authentic to yourself, you will end up with collecting knowledge and skills from various areas that you like.
The main point here is that most of us don't even know beforehand what they will end up with in the end.
After all; the only thing you want to be specialized in, is being You.
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