Is it better to be a specialist or a generalist?

“Specialists are people who know more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing. Generalists are people who know less and less about more and more, until they know nothing about everything.”
Likely source: Robert E. Swain

Yes, those sentences are intended to be humorous but we can’t help but recognize an element of truth in them. But humor aside, it brings up an age-old question: is it better to be a specialist or a generalist?

Before we tackle that question, it’s worth making the point that the world needs both. Consider two health situations:

  1. You need surgery to correct a brain aneurysm.
  2. You have a collection of unusual symptoms of unknown origin.

In the first case, you clearly would like to see a medical specialist – a brain surgeon – and presumably one with lots of experience. You don’t really care if the brain surgeon has any other skills. In the second case, rather than seeing many different specialists until you find the right one, you would be better off with a diligent generalist who takes the time to narrow down the possibilities before treating you or sending you to a specialist. The more exposure the generalist has had to different illnesses, the better.

Yes, the world needs both but should you be a generalist or specialist?

You can’t conclusively decide based solely on pay. One study of top MBA students showed that generalists got more offers and higher signing bonuses than those students with specialized management degrees. On the other hand, the data suggest that most of the highest paying jobs require specialization. Your profession influences which choice will be more lucrative.

If you’re deciding based on which approach is most likely to get you a job, the right idea might be to have general skills but market yourself as a specialist. Most managers hire for a specific need but want people to help with other issues when they arise. If you have a broad range of skills, you should emphasize the one that is most likely to appeal to the hiring manager. In the discipline of marketing, this is called positioning.

Over the last decade or so, the conventional wisdom skirts the debate between specialists and generalists by suggesting that people should be T-shaped. T-shaped people are deep in at least one topic but with an exposure to a wide range of topics and the ability to cooperate/communicate across many disciplines. Research has shown that interdisciplinary teams produce better results.

I’ve been a big proponent of interdisciplinary teams and T-shaped talent but lately my thinking has evolved. When you’re early in your career, I think you should be a generalizing-specialist; someone who is specialized in a specific topic but with broad interests in other aspects of the business. As you advance in your career, you learn new areas of specialty such that you don’t remain T-shaped but rather have several vertical bars.

Since it is difficult to remain an expert in many topics (especially in fast evolving fields like science, medicine, and technology), over time you naturally become more of a generalist. To keep an advantage over other generalists, you should be a specializing-generalist; continually improving your knowledge in one specific area.

In other words, there’s no simple answer. You should be a generalist and a specialist.

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5 Responses to Is it better to be a specialist or a generalist?

  1. M Mpaata November 27, 2017 at 10:40 am #

    It is always better to be generalist first then specialise.Going to specialise as a first option is a serious limitation in life.

  2. Malcolm Ryder November 27, 2017 at 4:35 pm #

    Here’s a bit of a spin on thw vocabulary: it pays to have a broadly applicable competency while also having a particular expertise.

  3. gauravjaiswalblog November 28, 2017 at 6:17 pm #

    Can completely relate to the generalizing-specialist feamework, VERY relevant in later part of one’s career

  4. Ric Rogers November 29, 2017 at 5:45 am #

    Interesting that Jonathan used his expertise in Marketing to express a broadly appealing topic. Well illustrated my friend.

  5. Specialist November 29, 2017 at 9:35 am #

    You nailed it in that last graph–I am a specialist with specific skills (content marketing), but the higher I go up in the org, the more of a generalist I am asked to be (managing budgets, project management, etc.). But that’s not my passion–but it pays well. Frustrating.

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