The traditional path of success has strongly encouraged specialization in a single discipline, even though today’s society is placing greater value on individuals who possess breadth of experience and interdisciplinary thinking. We still prefer specialists when things become complicated, or we have a problem. Also, certain professions, like medicine, require specialization. There is just too much to learn and not enough time to have physicians focusing on more than one specialty, such as cardiology and neurology.
So which industries prefer generalists? Most companies prefer hiring generalists for management positions since they have a broader set of skills required for leadership roles. But I would argue that we should discontinue the debate of whether you should be a generalist or specialist, and instead look at ways to we can benefit from both approaches by switching between being a specialist and a generalist depending on where you are in your career.
According to Jeff Haden, author of the The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win, the market is seeing more value in generalists. Change is occurring quickly and there is a greater risk of specializing in an area that may be outdated soon. Creative breakthroughs require being able to combine or leverage different areas of expertise. Our society is becoming more interconnected, and as a result, a generalist is better positioned to see these connections and come up with innovative solutions.
This means the more varied the training, the better an individual will apply their knowledge to a wide variety of situations—breadth of training confers breadth of transfer.
David Epstein, the author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, argues that “our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is the ability to integrate broadly.” Throughout his book, he argues that AI systems thrive in environments with stable structures and narrow ranges of experience. And guess what? This is primarily the domain of the specialist, which means it will probably be these kinds of jobs that get automated.
Take, for example, chess. In 1997, an IBM supercomputer called ‘Deep Blue’ defeated Garry Kasparov, who was the current world chess champion. Even though Kasparov was arguably the best chess player who ever lived, he was no match for the computing power of Deep Blue, which could analyze 200 million moves per second. Later, Kasparov went on record as stating, “anything we can do, and we know how to do it, machines will eventually do better.”
The downside of the generalist approach is you are sacrificing depth for breadth, which may make you expendable and provide you with less job security.
Specialists always lead with the fact they make more money and typically have less competition. It is also the prescribed path for anyone who wants to become an expert or thought leader in a particular field. And there is definite value in being an expert. Most of us seek advice from a specialist, not a generalist, when we have a problem.
Marshall Goldsmith, IMS Lifetime Achievement Award recipient and author of The Earned Life: Lose Regret, Choose Fulfillment, agrees with many of Epstein’s points in the advantages of being a generalist but favors the specialist approach. Ever since graduate school, he has been slicing the loaf of his professional interests into ever thinner slivers of specialization. Over time, Marshall narrowed his specialty to include only successful CEOs. This approach worked very well for him, as he continually ranked as the top executive coach in the world.
Organizations also benefit from hiring specialists since they require less training because they are already armed with skills and expertise. In many cases, their retention rates are longer since they value jobs and work environments that allow them to strengthen their knowledge and expertise.
However, there are also costs to specializing as well. Specialists may suffer from career inflexibility, have harder time finding suitable positions, and in some cases, lack job opportunities due to changing market conditions.
A BETTER PERSPECTIVE
So, should you be a generalist or specialist? Why does it have to an either-or decision? In most cases, in order to be successful, you need both specialized knowledge and a broad set of experiences and skill sets.
A great approach that combines these two approaches is the generalized specialist. Someone who has one area of deep knowledge while also having experiences in many other areas that may or may not be related to that core area. This person can go both deep and wide, making connections and providing meaningful insights from multiple fields.
One example of a famous generalized specialist is Claude Shannon, who played an instrumental role in the start of the information age. While he was studying advanced mathematics at the University of Michigan, Claude took a philosophy class where he was exposed to the work of George Boole, who had been a logician that developed a framework of assigning the value of 0 to a false statement and a value of 1 to a true statement. During his internship at AT&T Bell labs, Claude developed the system of encoding and transmitting information electronically using 0s and 1s by connecting telephone routing technology with Boole’s logic system.
But how does one go about developing this generalized specialist approach? When you are young and starting out, take your time in culling through your interests to identify where your passion lies. It usually takes years of sampling and stumbling into the wrong areas until you find the one field that captures your interest and passion. By taking the experimenter role as a generalist, you are building your generalist toolkit. Later in life, once you have settled on a field or specialty worthy of your time and efforts. Now, take the role of a specialist by continually refining and perfecting your craft. With lots of hard work and a little luck, you will eventually occupy the role of a generalized specialist in your chosen field, and assuming you have chosen well, the world may even beat a path to your door.
ABOUT CHARLES GOOD
Charles Good is the president of The Institute for Management Studies, which provides transformational learning experiences that drive behavioral change and develop exceptional leaders. Charles is an innovative and resourceful leader who specializes in bringing people together to develop creative organizational and talent strategies that enable business results. His areas of expertise include assessing organizational skill gaps and leading the design, creation and delivery of high impact, innovative learning solutions that achieve business goals.