Generalists vs. Specialists

by | Sep 27, 2019

There’s a lot of advantages to being a Specialist.
Your value is clear, unmistakable. The pitch writes itself. I am a Google Ads specialist. I am a Facebook Ads master. I am a marble counter tops guru. Generalists have a harder time describing their value because they’re not the best in any one labeled thing. They can’t be.
They can’t be because Specialists spend all day learning and honing their skills at their specialty. They can spend 8 or 10 or any amount of hours on their thing, while generalists need to spend 2 hours on one thing, then 3 hours on another, then one hour, then two other hours. No amount of natural ability or effort can overcome this, it’s just math and the finite nature of our time on this earth.
Employers and companies love Specialists. They fill a clear need and fit in a nice tidy box. Generalists may have lots of value, but they’re hard to place in a “role”. I have incredibly talented friends who have struggled to find jobs due to this.
Everyone wants to be a Specialist; until something changes. If your thing goes away, or gets automated out, you just lost all your hard fought value. All those hours you accumulated account for nothing anyone needs anymore. And now you have to reinvent yourself. Which is fine if you’re ready and able to be a Purple Cow and go through that cycle of innovation 3-5 times over your career. But most aren’t.
Generalists thrive in change. Their variety of skills make them extremely adaptable to environments where what we value is fluid. Which in case you haven’t noticed is the environment we live in.
This is because they have studied in a variety of disciplines that lend themselves to different ways of thinking about and solving problems. An engineer will approach a company reorg differently than a psychologist. A scientist will recommend a different approach to a dispute over budget allocation than a politician. If you take time to understand these different disciplines, you find yourself with a wider range of approaches to challenges because you are able to see the common truths among them all and thus have a wider lens through which you see how the world works.
Its how Elon Musk can start whats essentially a bank, sell it, then use the funds to start a rocket ship company, a solar energy company, and an electric car company while boring tunnels under Los Angeles.
If you’re starting something no one has tried before, you want a Generalist on your team because they have a depth of models at their command through which they can develop solutions to any opportunity that presents itself. They’re simply better equipped for change.
Change is a threat to Specialists. And we all know what they say about change.

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