Is It Better to Specialize or Generalize?
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)?
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
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?