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To be or not to be: A generalist or a specialist

July 29, 2011

My day started interesting today when my boss asked me for my opinion on this article.  My long e-mail response turned out to be an interesting article I could post in my blog, so here it is:

I didn’t know there was a battle (or discrimination) between generalists and specialists!  For one thing I always thought that you can’t be a “specialist” without first understanding the general and wholistic view of things or the fundamentals.  Everyone must start as a “generalist” learning varying fields and absorbing a wide array of knowledge, similar to a child going through elementary and learning an overview of a variety of subjects, then slowly climbing into high school where you tackle more specific disciplines, and then up to college where you have finally discovered what your forte is (or are) and specialize on that (or those).  Some who can afford Masters or PhD’s train even deeper into what they specialize in.  So really, as a professional you MUST have both the generalist perspective and the specialist skills.

The problem with sticking to just being a “generalist” is similar to the popular saying, “jack of all trades, master of none”.  The danger of remaining a generalist and not digging deeper into specific disciplines is that you cannot establish authority over any issue or subject matter.  Sure you are agile and you have the potential for more work, but much of this work is really in learning or keeping up (which is not necessarily a bad thing) instead of the actual job to be done.  Paul (the article’s author) said so himself:

“Falling into the trap of wanting to “have a go” at pretty much anything that crosses your path is easy for the generalist. While admirable, this quality may be a detriment. Generalists can waste hours trying to do what a specialist could do in minutes. Worse still, the result could be substandard and damaging to their reputation.  Generalists need to know their limits, whether this means knowing when to call in a specialist or simply accepting that they cannot be involved in certain tasks.”

The purpose of a generalist is to have an overall view of a situation or a problem, and to come to a sensible starting point in trying to build (or fix) things.  Generalists will also be fitting for managing or overseeing the process of building or resolving things, and they are easier to train in some cases to be a helping hand if there’s a lack in manpower.  But if you study this situation closely, you’ll find that this generalist is after all, specializing in management and people, even communications–not journalism or broadcasting, but relationships and relaying information among team members.  He may not have reached that point at once, but it has become a natural course for him to reach this certain focus… or finding his purpose and role in a team or an industry.  It may not even be a management role, it could be a passion or a cause or a drill-down to more specific skill sets!  I think what I’m driving at is that any person who thrives to grow (whether as a person or as a professional) will not just find himself expanding laterally (as perhaps a generalist is viewed) but also vertically & deeper into more specific disciplines, even principles.

If a generalist refuses this natural course towards becoming more specific, then it might mean that this person is intimidated by deeper knowledge, the training it takes to become excellent at something, the competition in that field, or the responsibility & onus that comes with being a specialist or a leader or an expert of this field.  And I think the only way a generalist can be “destroyed” is by his own character… when he acts like a “know it all” and bosses everyone around, even when he’s only scratched the surface of what others may know in greater detail.

Now looking at being a “specialist”, I said earlier that you cannot be one without coming from a generalist standpoint and learning and exploring as much as you can. No one can claim to be a specialist until he has a very deep understanding of his discipline and role in the overall industry, as well as respect and understanding for fellow specialists’ and generalists’ roles in the overall industry.  A specialist understands that where he is best is just as critical as the others playing their roles in order to achieve an end result with the best outcome, or the best product/system, or even the best ecosystem or community (whether it’s the World Wide Web, a Nation, a government, a hospital, a church, or any professional industry).  So I would say that the specialists Paul claimed to have snobbed generalists–or let’s just say other people in general, are people who have reached where they are understanding only one thing (or one subset of things), believing that without what he knows or without his industry all other disciplines and industries will fail, and has built their world, their principles and their pride around consuming more from that one thing, even tries to evangelize everyone into thinking “_________ is king.” (Fill in the blank!)  In short, these kinds of people are NOT truly specialists, they are merely arrogant pricks.  Oh, and there are many generalists who can be pretty arrogant, too, (ironically) generalizing specialists to be only about one thing.  (Tsk, tsk… can’t we all get along?)

But let’s not forget that the human potential is relevant in this discussion.  The best part about the human potential is that you can learn to be a specialist, or to be an expert, or be excellent, in more than one thing!  You can be excellent in as many disciplines as you possibly can fathom and endure!  It’s like the parable of the talents when a servant who was given five talents and was able to multiply it by producing five more (–in the end, God put him in charge of even more)!  You hear of lawyers or judges (experts of law) and software engineers (experts in application development) going through training to become professional chefs.  A business analyst who has the talent for interior design and is an expert at colors.  A professional musician who is an SEO copywriter and a teacher of philosophy.  Or an artist from the conservatory of music who has mastered theology and apologetics and pastors a church… you have a hybrid of these people who have not limited themselves to doing only one thing!  But that doesn’t make them “generalists” as some might mistake a generalist to be a “know all, do all”.  These are people who took the time to master more than one specific discipline and they are reaping the benefits of being specialists in those fields!  The same is true for someone who is an expert in many disciplines from within an industry.  Who says a doctor can’t be both an orthopedic surgeon and neurosurgeon if he really can be both!  Or a PHP developer who is also an expert in design and animation and SEO/SEM.  Why not?  These people are able to use their deep understanding and skills in specific subjects to even broaden their understanding (or even appreciation) of wholistic views and the industry as a whole.

In conclusion, I really don’t see the argument as to whether one has to be called a generalist or specialist because everyone starts as one and transforms into another, whether limited to only one field or spanning many.  Man’s only hindrance is himself.

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