I Finally Realized I’m a Generalist

Too much to learn, too little time

Peter Avritch
Nov 15, 2018 · 5 min read

Damn, I’m almost 60 and I just found out that I’m a generalist, after spending most of my career trying to be a specialist.

A specialist, in my world, is like a sharp shooter. A sniper, trained to attack problems within their specialty with skills that far exceed those of most of their peers.

In contrast, a generalist has a broader view of problems, and consequently juggles more pieces of the puzzle at a time than do specialists.

It’s not that one is specifically better than the other — they’re just different. Each plays a vital role in making companies successful.

Personally, not being one too big on labels, I’ve always viewed myself as more of a hard-core developer with CEO tendencies. Whenever I’ve found myself spending too much time doing just one of these things, my brain naturally starts yearning for the other. I think I’m happiest when I’m able to strike a good balance between the two.

Why be a Specialist?

Whenever I latch onto something, professionally, I go deep — very deep. It’s just my personality. If I decide to learn a programming language, I strive to become an expert. I’m simply not satisfied with anything less.

Of course, it takes time to become an expert; sometimes years. But I’m okay with that. And earlier in my career, it seems there were far fewer things I needed to know, so it was much easier to focus on becoming a specialist in two or three key areas.

But why be a specialist?

Why do I Care?

For me, it’s a combination of control and respect. Control of my tools, and respect of my peers.

If I haven’t mastered my toolbox, how can I ever know if I’ve truly arrived at the best solution for a given problem. And who doesn’t like being recognized by their coworkers for being the go-to guy to deal with difficult issues?

Bottom line — I love being a specialist.

There’s Always Somebody Better

It probably shouldn’t bother me, but it does. No matter how much I study, or how much I learn, I can’t get through finishing my morning coffee without finding at least three or four phenomenal articles, or a conference talk, on topics that are important to me.

As I read these articles and watch videos, of course, I’m eternally grateful that these authors generously shared their knowledge. But at the same time, I’m thinking, damn, these people are good, really good — superstars. How come they know so much more than me?

Maybe I’m not the specialist I thought I was.

Should I be sad?

Or, should I be happy I just got a little smarter?

But, I’ve Got a Good Excuse

Whenever I start to question my specialist street cred, the first thing I tell myself is that I’m juggling 20 or more different things at any one time; how could I possibly spend the amount of time that these superstars obviously do in order to come up to their level?

Or, more importantly, should I?

Would that truly be the best use of my time?

These days, can anyone truly be a specialist in all the disciplines it takes to run a startup? Certainly not.

I’ve been Thinking About it All Wrong

And then, a while back, the big epiphany. It’s just physically impossible to be a superstar in 20 different areas — my job is to be the glue. I’m the guy who knows all the pieces of the puzzle, how they need to fit together, how to delegate, how to manage, and how to prioritize.

I’ve come to realize that’s my own personal secret sauce. It makes me different.

I don’t need to be a specialist in everything; a few things is just fine, as long as one of them is being a specialist at finding other specialists.

If I don’t beat myself up for not being as good at Photoshop as my graphic designer, why should I beat myself up for not being as good at javascript, or python, or machine learning, as other developers on my team?

This insatiable need to be a specialist across multiple disciplines was all in my head — or ego.

All these years, I’ve been trying to be a specialist, a superstar, in too many areas. And sure, it’s been fun for me, because I love to learn new things.

What I really needed to realize was that I was already a superstar at something really important — putting the puzzle together.

In other words, I’m a generalist. Or, for the purpose of my ego, I was a specialist at being a generalist.

Why Didn’t I Figure this Out Sooner?

For my entire career, I’ve only worked for startups — mostly ones I’ve personally founded or co-founded. And like most bootstrapped startups with only a handful of people, we rarely had enough money to hire the truly fantastic superstars that would make life dreamy.

So as a startup founder short of funds and superstars, I’ve just sort of become accustomed to spending nights and weekends learning new things.

I’d often learn just enough to solve some problem, and then I’d be off working on some totally different problem. I’d always get a lot of things done, but I’d frequently feel frustrated that I didn’t have time to learn more, or that I’d forget something I learned a few months earlier because I moved on to something else.

I guess, being my own almost-specialist in whatever the topic just became a way of life out of necessity. And that was okay, because I really enjoyed it.

Looking at Learning Differently

Interestingly, with my new perspective on things, I’ve noticed a shift in some of the topics I choose to learn. Instead of reading 10 books on something like Python, mobile, or database technologies, I’ll spread the love out over a broader set of topics; many totally unrelated to programming.

It’s liberating.

Being a Proud Generalist

So now, I’ve finally come to terms with understanding that in my current phase of life, I’m no longer the specialist I’ve tried to be for so many years.

I’m a generalist — and a damn good one. I’m proud of that!

Best of all, I no longer have to beat myself up for not being a specialist in everything that I’d like to be. I just need to be the glue.

And you know what — I love being the glue.

Peter Avritch

Written by

Serial founder and software architect. CTO at Hello Gloss. Love to build and code — started with Lego.