Is It Better to Specialize or Generalize?

by Nora Dunn on 27 November 2009 14 comments

I’ve formerly written about the virtues of specializing within the confines of running a business and seeking clients. And as an entrepreneurial tool, specialization is quite a valuable skill to have.

But what about those of us who are employees, not entrepreneurs? Are we more employable — and ultimately happy — if we become proficient at lots of things (i.e. to generalize), or to become really good at one or two things (i.e. to specialize)?

The Debate

As tends to happen, this article was born of a debate on the topic. The fellow I was debating with is a very successful CEO who has made his mark with a variety of companies. The businesses have varied slightly in nature, but the general industry and his involvement in each business has remained the same.

His argument is that to specialize in your chosen career — and to stick with and further develop it — is the best route. You become very (very) good at what you do, and are seen as an expert in the field. He believes that specializing is the way to establish a solid career path, make good money, and derive a sense of career (and personal) satisfaction.

I don’t necessarily disagree. But for the sake of argument, my points of debate centered around the possibility that specializing leads to career boredom, limits job options, and can ultimately do yourself out of a job if your area of specialty becomes obsolete.

Let’s look at some contributing factors.

Specialization

Pros

  • You get higher wages for having specific knowledge.
  • You are a desirable employee in your area of expertise.
  • If you specialize enough, you can become a leading expert in demand for satisfying ground-breaking projects or additional work on the side that complements your job.

Cons

  • You have less job security if your area of specialty becomes obsolete.
  • Many areas of specialty require a university degree or educational certification of sorts (which is not a problem per se, but might financially — or otherwise — be a stretch to achieve).
  • If you are too specialized, the company can’t use you for other tasks or jobs, thus decreasing your overall flexibility as an employee.
  • Too much time working at your specific area of specialty can lead to career boredom.

Generalization

Pros

  • The more possibilities you have for making income, the less you will feel hard economic times. Then again, if your area of generalization is too vague, you may become too expendable and be the first in line for company layoffs.
  • To be a generalist often means you keep learning new complementary skills. This continues to build a good base of employability, in addition to conquering the long-term boredom factor.
  • Your increased range of employability also means you have greater chances of being employed closer to home than a specialist might. You will save money on transportation and other expenses that a specialist might bear (even with a higher income that might not cover these adjustments).

Cons

  • Employers might not know how best to place you in their organization if your skills are too spread out. They may not view you as reliable or tenacious enough with any one job or skill set to be worth hiring.
  • Without a solid idea of what you do, you may find yourself searching, both for personal identity as well as groping in the dark for what to do next, and for what type of employer you’ll work for next.
  • Less focused job searches are more difficult to endure.

Personal Experience

I come from both the specialist and generalist categories, but find my overall career path solidly identifies me as a generalist. Here is a random list of careers I have had:

  • Television Producer and Host
  • Actor, Singer, Dancer
  • Administrative Assistant
  • Property Manager
  • Certified Financial Planner (CFP)
  • Outdoor Education Field Guide
  • Writer — Travel and Personal Finance

Delve deep enough into any one of these careers, and I can match it with a certain degree of education that I attained for it (usually in conjunction with working in the field), and a degree of specialty within each career (i.e. the types of properties I managed, tv shows I worked on, the type of writing I do, etc).

But the skills I learned and employed in each career were not autonomous, and instead complemented the requirements of the next career.

  • Without my administrative experience, most subsequent careers wouldn’t have run nearly as smoothly.
  • Without my time as a CFP, I wouldn’t be writing about personal finance today.
  • My acting and tv experience has been instrumental in the emergence of a few possible hosting positions on financial shows that were near misses (such is the industry).
  • And without the full range of careers, I would have been hard-pressed to pull off an appearance on live national tv without breaking a sweat!

So in my personal experience, despite the inherent benefits of choosing an area of specialty and sticking to it, I have found that being a generalist has given me the variety I crave, while still helping me to build a life-long career path that is satisfying and lucrative. Or at least satisfying. (I am a writer and professional hobo now, after all. The money doesn’t exactly keep me driving the latest sportscar, but the circumstances allow me to live on the road full-time — which is currently more important to me.)

Food for Thought

Does your area of specialty have wide employment opportunities? How specialized is it — will it put you in more demand, or is it a skill that is easy enough to acquire that many people have it?

If possible, choose an area of specialty that still has a fairly broad market and use. If your specialty is too obscure, you will limit your options.

Whether you generalize or specialize, try to push yourself beyond comfort zones regularly. This will help you to grow, continue learning, and stay motivated and energized by your work.

Some career options require specializing right off the bat. For example to be a medical doctor is considered to be a specialty of sorts, but even within the range of medicine, there are hundreds of areas of specialty you can further explore. What each reader will define as a “specialty” versus a more general career can vary. For example, is a GP (general practitioner) a specialist or a generalist?

In reality, career choices are a very personal thing. Other people may let their personal experience cloud the issue and say you “should” do this and you “should” do that. Instead, allow own interests, goals, and ideas to determine what you do, as that will get you closest to a career that will make you happy.

Here is an interesting article that discusses the benefits and drawbacks of specialization within a managerial role. It appears that there is no clear answer as to whether it is best to generalize or specialize.

So instead — as usual — balance appears to be the key.

On that note, what about being a “generalizing specialist”? As the best of both worlds, a generalizing specialist is a jack-of-all-trades and master of a few. They beat out generalists for their deeper breadth of knowledge, and beat out specialists for having more range and flexibility, and a better working knowledge of how it all fits together.

So is it better to specialize or generalize? What is your experience?

 

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Guest's picture
Heron

I've done okay as a generalist, but what I've found that the critical skill for a generalist is to be integrate the insights from multiple fields or disciplines.

Guest's picture

This is an extremely interesting question, and one that's relevant to a lot of job-seekers right now. Most of them are considering their options and are unsure of how to brand themselves.

You pose a lot of interesting points. My approach to it, and that of many others--as you point out--is balance. While it's probably best to be an expert at one thing, my biggest worry with the current state of business and the economy is how rapidly things change.

The "cheese" (to borrow the book reference) is always on the move, and it's doing so more and more quickly. As employees (and increasingly so, as personal brands), we need to be able to adapt and expand our reach beyond what we've been typically comfortable with.

So in that regard--I like your approach of separating expertise from "skills," because the latter are portable from field to field, job to job, and one area of specialty to the next. It's what I like to do personally, and what I think many people will need to do to remain relevant in the workplace.

Guest's picture
Wayward

Like my father, I find myself knowing a lot about a few things but with a healthy curiosity so that I know enough about a lot of other things—enough that other people often come to me for advice, and enough that I know where to point them (or myself) in the right direction to learn more.

I also have a wide ranging employment background, from being a nurse's aide to being a restaurant manager at McDonald's to working on college recruitment and retention of Native American students, I sometimes I feel like I've somehow serendipitously landed in several jobs since very few are related, but as my last supervisor pointed out—she chose me as her Executive Assistant based on my wide range of experiences.

Like Nora, my administrative position really opened a lot of doors for me both in terms of being organized and making things run smoothly, but also in terms of networking—I met and developed relationships with people I otherwise never would have met from CEOs to venture capitalists to bestselling authors.

I did not have a background in the technical skill set I needed to do the job I currently have as a website content editor ( a job I love, btw), but one of my contacts had recommended me for the job and with organization I was able to take night classes and otherwise learn on my own the technical skills I needed to do the job.

So, long story short, like Heron I feel that being a generalist has worked well for me and it really is more about finding the commonalities across several fields and disciplines—so I guess that interdisciplinary liberal arts degree really did pay off.

Guest's picture
Ainsley

Great discussion! I believe knowing a lot about various areas in your field is vastly preferable than specializing. As was commented above, the key to this approach is keeping up with news and information in all these areas and being able to draw the valuable connections between how this information interacts.

It can be difficult and is not for the weak - you must be dedicated to your art in order to succeed in this approach.

More importantly, I believe that as a "life" choice its a healthier, more balanced approach in general. I think that author Robert A. Heinlein had it right when he said:

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects"

Guest's picture

I don't think for the most part that you can make that decision about specializing vs. being a generalist except in a few narrowly-defined fields. And It's ALWAYS better to know a lot - knowledge is power, after all! With the rapid rate of social change we face nowadays, it's always better to be able to grow & shift with the culture we live in. It's all according to where your life takes you.

Guest's picture
shadox

As you climb up the corporate ladder the more generalized you must become and the less specialization is useful or even desirable. As an executive, I would pretty much useless at most of the tasks performed by my company, but I need to know enough about a wide range of topics critical to the running of the company.

In that sense, an executive is like an entrepreneur, I suppose. If you have ambitions in the general management direction, you must have specialized knowledge to fulfill your current role, but must also work on developing your general understanding of business topics.

Guest's picture

Interesting debate, in my experience it is always been better to specialize. However, you do make a good argument in terms of generalizing.

My guess is that your OK with specializing as you keep your head out of the books long enough to know that you may at some point need to branch out? Case in point the Postal Service seems to be a rapidly declining field.

Just don't hold onto a loser and you should be fine.

Guest's picture

Wonderful article!

I feel it captures a very important point ~ whilst it is brilliant to be a specialist in any given field, a specialist who has the capability to expand beyond their abilities by generalizing opens up infinite possibilities to progress to greater heights within their specialist area.

You could say a generalizing specialist is a true specialist. One who is open to new ways of excelling.

Guest's picture

1. Specialization is more rewarding but comes at the cost of higher risk. Knowing one thing well is akin to putting all your eggs in one basket. You will either make a huge salary or be unemployed.

2. Generalization is less rewarding but less risky. It makes you more employable because it increases employment options. But it limits you to average pay.

3. The volatility of the modern economy necessitates the generalist approach in much the same way you need to diversify your investments.

4. It is my personal belief that both the generalist and the specialist will come out at the same place in the end though the specialist will have taken a much wilder economic ride. The key for generalists is to not envy the specialists during the fat years. It always reverts to the mean.

C.

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

Thank you all for the comments! A theme seems to be emerging that balance and being generalizing specialists are key to overall employability and career satisfaction (as always, with a few compromises along the way).

I've often thought that the money lies in specializing, but Charlie (above) shows us an interesting perspective by introducing the concept of an overall income mean. Interesting...thanks!

Carlos Portocarrero's picture

Nora: I love this topic! I wrote something similar a few months ago using a hammer and swiss-army knife analogy. And now that some time has passed I think it's crucial to have a little bit of both in your toolbox. Like you said, balance is key and diversifying your talents in the workplace is essential.

If you put a gun to my head, however, I'd go with the swiss-army knife.

 

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Guest's picture
Guest

I prefer specialization because technology will always be at my side. Great article.

Guest's picture
Guest

True specialization is not realistic. As you proved in your own article, a medical degree is a specialization AND a generalization, to the same degree that an undergraduate degree is a specialization and generalization in its own cone. Its like a mandelbrot set... the deeper you go into something, it doesn't matter, the scale and degrees of specialization and generalization remain the same. Speaking of that,

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/video/module.html?mod=0&pkg=21102008&seg=5

Guest's picture
ravish

Nice article Nora...thnks for giving good suggestions for choosing right career path...after reading this article i think generalisation is the best that will take you to success and you can have a satisfaction that you tried different things and succeed...after all its only one life we have we should make most out of it..