Should you be a generalist or a specialist?

Exploring the differences between generalist and specialists

Should you be a generalist or a specialist?

2020.06.20 & 06.21

  • You can ask this question at different levels: ie. As a human, someone in tech, designer, disciplines within design.
  • Choosing what to call yourself is a form of specialization. Within that domain, you still need to decide whether to be a generalist or a specialist.
  • Being a generalist allows you to nagivate uncertain times ahead, it's a form of keeping your options open and following your areas of interest. We're in a more globalized work environment, where your skills are competing across geography, automation, and generations.
  • Keeping your options open is also common when you're exploring, similar to first year students in college, they are testing and reacting to different areas of interest. But this exploration might be slightly different than someone that's actively a generalist. You could end up a generalist because you can't make up your mind, or you can be a generalist because you actively want to learn enough about a subject to be conversant in it.
  • Is specialization a false risk? The logic being that if you can be really good at any skill, you'll be able to make a career and living out of it? It's a matter of being good enough? How do you identify the threshhold for amount of expertise needed to succeed in a field? Maybe that's the difference between generalists and specialists: generalists want to learn just enough. Specialists want to learn it all and push the boundaries.
  • Specialization might not be about depth, but relative depth. With languages, if you speak one language, are you a specialist? If you speak multiple languages are you a generalist or specialist? It's not about the number of skills, it's about the depth of skills. Specialization is a role assignment, it's the recognition that you're better suited to do something than anyone else in your group. And the group acknowledges that you should spend your time doing that while the group is responsible for other things.
  • As with any team or organization: you have work that needs to be done, and you have coordination efforts. Is coordination a generalist skill? or a specialization in coordination?

This is the current challenge:

  • Leaning into generalist skills allows you to navigate the unknown.
  • Leaning into specialist skills allows you to compete, stand-out, add value in a larger pool of talent.