Generalist or Specialist? Don’t Choose

Liam Brodentel
Sep 1, 2019 · 8 min read

How you can become both, and why you should.

Photo by Pablo García Saldaña on Unsplash

So, what are you going to do with your degree?

It was the dreaded question we faced as we trudged through college.

For those who had a life passion long before they were even old enough to pronounce it, the answer was pretty easy.

When I grow up, I’m going to be an astroph…astrofishishsist….a space person!

For others — people who changed majors more often than their dorm bed sheets — the question was often terrifying.

Even if you did manage to stick with just one major, people would ask what you want to specialize in. Oh, you want to be a historian? What time period? A doctor? What field of medicine?

When I was going through college, students thought a “too general” sounding degree was more useful as toilet paper than listed on a résumé. Everyone wanted to get a degree that “mattered.” Heaven pity those poor souls dumb enough to fall for the “multidisciplinary studies” trap. Multidisciplinary Studies…I can already hear the hiring manager laughing as he folds the job application into a paper airplane — letting it fly straight into the trash bin.

That wasn’t really the case in the real world, though. After college, I learned there was a place in the world for both generalists and specialists. However, people constantly debate today on what’s a better option. Is it better to spend your life becoming an expert in one area, or to be a jack of all trades, master of none?

Every few years, the world culture seems to shift from one side to the other. When I was in school, we thought specialists ruled the world. Today, however — in a future full of automation and specialist-job-stealing-robots — people are saying it’s better to be a generalist.

Picking one of two sides doesn’t sate my fondness for being disagreeable and inquisitive, though, so I did some research. Turns out, there’s a better solution to solve this debate once and for all.

Here it is:

If you really want to succeed in life, being a generalist or specialist isn’t enough — you need to be a specialized generalist. Here’s why and how.

The Specialist’s Dilemma

Specialists are like the great and powerful West African lion. They rule the animal kingdom. All other creatures bow down to them. They look across the savannah smiling in the knowledge that everything the sun touches is theirs (why yes, I did just finish watching Lion King, why do you ask?)

But, here’s a question. When’s the last time you saw a lion roaming the downtown streets of London? How long do you think this king among beasts would last in, say, Greenland?

If Simba is rules the animal world, why is he going extinct?

Because he’s a specialist. Sure, hunting and poaching play a role in the lion’s decline, but the reality is West African Lions are only good at thriving in a very narrow and specific environment — that is, West Africa. As the world changes and forests die out, the delicate natural habitat required for the lion to live in narrows further and further. The lion can’t adapt to these environmental changes.

As a result? The king leaves the building.

This is the specialist’s dilemma.

When the conditions are right and their expert skills are most useful, they rule the world — or, at least, the corner of the world that their skills occupy. But what happens when that world changes? What happens when the specialist gets promoted into a management role? Or when the professional guitarist breaks his hand? They go the way of the lion.

It’s what happens to the coal miner in a world that’s going green.

It’s what happened to ice cutters. Wait, you’ve never heard of ice cutters? You have a refrigerator to thank for that.

Change is the greatest enemy of the specialist, and guess what?

“Change is the only constant.”

The Generalist’s Shortfall

Ok, so specialists only thrive under specific conditions, and the world is always up and changing on us. So, the solution is to be a generalist, right? A jack of all trades who can always find a job anywhere?

Not so much. If specialists are lions, think of generalists as ants.

Ants are everywhere — every continent except Antarctica. In fact, scientists believe that there’s one ant colony that has successfully spread itself across Europe, the US, and Japan. (Scientists call that interesting. I call it nightmare fuel).

Ants are the ultimate generalist. They can survive anywhere, under any conditions.

Here’s the problem, though. In the entirety of the animal kingdom, ants are kind of lame. Sure, there are millions (billions or trillions even) of them and they’re pretty good at building tunnels, finding food, cooperating, blah blah blah, but in the grand scheme of things, ants seem pretty insignificant. Most of the time, they’re just annoying and, at the very most, they might ruin your picnic. Even then, ants can only accomplish things in large numbers. Really large, massive numbers. A lone ant by itself doesn’t amount to much. And guess what? If you’re a pure generalist, you’re essentially that lone ant.

As humans, we want to achieve great things, and that requires expertise. Generalists didn’t put a man on the moon. Sure, they may have helped, but it wouldn’t have been at all possible without specialists — people who devoted their entire adult lives to one tiny, difficult cog of the great spacefaring adventure. Generalists can do a wide variety of tasks, but without the aid of a specialist, their potential use in any field is limited.

That’s the generalist’s shortfall.

So where does that leave us?

Buck, the Specialized Generalist

If both specialists and generalists have critical flaws, what should we be striving for as we attempt to pull significance out of our tiny lives?

The answer lies with a dog named Buck — the fictional hero of Jack London’s 1903 novel, The Call of the Wild.

Buck is a St Bernard/Scotch Shepherd mix. Buck is a simple dog. He lives a pleasant life in a good home in Northern California and he has skills that thrive in that environment He’s king of the backyard and loved by everyone. That is, until he gets kidnapped and shipped out to the harsh wilds of the Yukon to live life as a sled dog. Talk about a change of environment.

If Buck were a specialist, his life would have been over the minute he was kidnapped. After all, the life of a spoiled North-Cal house dog is the polar opposite to that of a Canadian sled dog.

If Buck were a pure generalist, however, he would have fared just as badly. Sure, he may have survived for a little while up in Canada, but he would have always been at the bottom of the dog pile. He would have been the worst sled dog in the pack and the least valued among the mushers. And do you know what happened to working dogs who weren’t up to snuff back then? I won’t spoil the book for you, but suffice to say that weak dogs didn’t make it far.

Buck wasn’t a generalist, either, though. No, he was a specialized generalist. Buck had an inner core set of specialized skills that were applicable both in California and in Canada — animal instinct, intelligence, and drive among other things. On top of his specialized skills, he had general, diverse traits that the other, purely specialized sled dogs didn’t have. He understood humans better, he was a fast learner, he knew how to adapt, and he understood what the rest of the world was like.

As a result, Buck not only survived in change — he thrived. He dominated even the specialists of both the civilized and wild environments. Buck was a specialized generalist.

That’s what we need to be. People who have some core specialty, but enhance that specialty with other general traits and skills that not only give them a unique edge, but help them adapt when their world changes — because it will change.

Specialized generalists are better at parties

Think of it this way. Let’s say your brain can only fit 100 facts:

You can learn 100 facts about one subject, but then you’ll know literally nothing about anything else in the world and you’ll be that one guy at parties who is always nerding out way too much on one thing. And what if no one cares about your one thing?

On the other hand, you can learn one fact about 100 subjects. Knowing only one fact doesn’t help you succeed in any of those subjects, though. Your usefulness in that area is used up pretty quick. This guy is also pretty boring at parties because his conversations never get very far. One sentence in and he’s already run out of things to say.

Now, what if you knew fifty things about one subject and ten things about five other subjects? That’s not so bad. Fifty things is a lot to know. You could sound like an expert in one field while still sounding informed on those five other subjects. This is that one interesting girl at the party who seems capable of jumping into any conversation with something intelligent to say while still diving deep into her passion (that topic she knows fifty things about) when asked about it.

Which of these people would you rather be?

It’s been true for centuries

The specialized generalist isn’t a novel idea. It was actually taught in 1600s era Japan. You know, the same country that brought us Ikigai and makes us ask, “Does it spark joy?” whenever we clean our houses.

Miyamoto Musashi, a 17th century samurai told his students in The Book of Five Rings:

“There are Confucians, Buddhists, tea connoisseurs, teachers of etiquette, dancers, and so on. These things do not exist in the way of warriors. But even if they are not your path, if you have wide knowledge of the ways, you encounter them in everything. In any case, as human[s], it is essential for each of us to cultivate and polish our individual path.”

He was teaching his students the benefits of gaining wide knowledge in things that had nothing to do with being a warrior — tea, dancing, etiquette and so on. “If you have wide knowledge of the ways, you encounter them in everything” — having diverse skills and experiences lets you see a problem from more than point of view. Pure specialists only see problems from vantage point — when you have only a hammer, every problem is a nail.

You still need to “cultivate and polish” your specialty, though. Because what use is a samurai who can make decent tea but wields a sword like a novice?

So, go ahead and specialize, but remember to make time for learning new and different skills as well. Those seemingly unrelated things that you discover in other career fields can often give you a surprising edge or insight that other specialists would never see. Besides, learning new things is fun and fulfilling.

Specialize in one thing, generalize in everything.

How do you know if you’re becoming too specialized? Think about what would happen to you if your specialty suddenly wasn’t needed. If you have no idea what you would do with yourself or where you would thrive, then start learning something new.

And how can you tell if you’re too generalized? Think about what areas or skills in your life that you have an edge over the average person. What are you better than others at? Again, if nothing comes to mind, then you probably need to pick one area and hone your skills in it.

If you truly want to be successful and resilient in life, being either a specialist or generalist isn’t enough. You gotta do both. In a world of lions and ants, be Buck.


If you liked this, check out my some of my other researched thoughts:

Or learn more about me and my writing at www.lostballooncafe.com

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Liam Brodentel

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Semi-fictional person, sometimes thoughtful ideas. Stories, research, travel, booze, not always in that order. Ghostwriter for hire at www.lostballooncafe.com

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