Specialist or Generalist? Neither.

By Naila Tariq —

Being a specialist in your field is generally prized and rewarded the world over. The more uniquely skilled you are, the higher regard you are viewed in, and the more seriously you are taken.

Entrepreneurs need to live and breath their industry of choice too. To disrupt a market and make a difference, you must first understand how it works (plus, the more knowledgeable you are, the more likely you are to impress investors).

However, there is such a thing as “too much” specialization — a point where your knowledge is so deep it’s the only thing you see, and the only lens through which you view the world and new information — so it’s important not to focus too narrowly on a single field. Otherwise, it leads to inflexible thinking patterns, and a reduction in both creativity and problem-solving skills.

And when those suffer, so does your business, as well as all the areas of your life that require complex, non-linear thinking.

So what’s the solution? Become a jack-of-all trades, not mastering any one skill but juggling several at once?

It’s tempting. After all, the world is moving towards a gig economy, which means the more skills under your belt, the more job opportunities you create for yourself.

Then again, if you get too excited and never give yourself the time to properly learn each skill, you’ll be producing mediocre work. It also means a higher likelihood of burnout if you’re constantly working on multiple projects at once.

The trick is to specialize and diversify.

Contrary to popular belief, specialization is necessary for creativity, because your knowledge of a particular field provides a framework through which you can channel ideas.

It isn’t the specialization that kills creativity and critical thinking, it’s exclusively specializing and never diverging from your chosen field. By all means, find your passion and make yourself an expert, but do not let it be the only knowledge you consume.

Learn more about the advancements in your own field, yes, but keep an eye on what’s happening out in the periphery and beyond. Read books outside your field. Develop interests that are as far away from your industry as you can get, and keep them separate whenever possible.

Because there’s a reason why writers occasionally leave their desks in the middle of a writing marathon, and why it’s recommended that employees take breaks, and why you’re told it’s no good to memorize your textbook a few hours before the exam. Over saturating your brain with only one type of information means it not only never has time to process what it’s learned, but that it does not have room for anything else, and that’s the real danger of exclusive specialization.

You do not live in a vacuum, and your field does not exist in a vacuum. Diversifying means being able to learn different problem solving tactics and applying them in your particular field.

You might find the solution to an engineering problem in the biology of an animal. You might discover that IT has already developed a feature you’ve been trying to build yourself for your product.

Once you open up your mind to as much knowledge as you can get your hands on, about a huge variety of topics , you start to bring that knowledge into your field in new and unexpected ways. You get creative again.

The brain requires material for creativity. You can’t build a business, or develop a software, or invent something, without being able to creatively bring together different disciplines to solve a problem, even if that problem is concentrated in a specific industry.

You’ll find yourself solving it faster, more efficiently, and more innovatively than if you had just been banging your head against it for week, months, or even years.

So find your passion. Put in those 10,000 hours. But keep your mind open and flexible, and always make room for more.

Originally published at www.sheraa.ae on September 14, 2017.

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