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Specialist Versus Generalist

There is no doubt these days about the turbulence of the global economy. It sucks, and if you want to survive, giving yourself as many tools as possible is a great edge. I’d love to do a brief overview of comparisons between the specialist and the generalist as it applies to working in a creative industry and the benefits and drawbacks of each.

The Specialist:

The pros:

You can think of a specialist as an extremely sharp spear. Precise, fluid, and knowledgeable within a given niche.

You want this person on your team to fulfill a particular task because, well, they specialize in what they are doing. And given that there is an implied level of professionalism to the title of “specialist”, you can be sure the work will be (usually) good.

This is Ghost Dog, this is Dali, this is Amelia Earhart.

The cons:

Like all overly sharp spears, they are prone to breakage. They have blinders. They have the curse of knowledge in the sense that it was knowledge that you had that others didn’t so you accidentally leave out information assuming that other’s would know what you were talking about.

An addendum of the phrase indicates that once you find a solution to a problem, you tend to always steer back to that solution for future mutations of that same problem. This creates a plateau of creativity, because after all, the specialist isn’t worrying about creating new solutions, but rather getting the job done as expeditiously as possible.

A great quote from the movie Ghost In The Shell (1995) :”Overspecialize and you breed in weakness.”

The Generalist:

 

The Pros:

Like it sounds, the Generalist casts a larger net and broadens chances of gaining opportunities.

In biology, ecosystems love diversity. A great video on the topic can be found here. Same goes for skill sets. If for some reason you stop getting calls for jobs that ask for graphic design help you can fall back on your ability to render or illustrate.

Being the Generalist is like hedging your bets. John Maeda of RISD and Tim Brown of IDEO have some great thoughts on the matter. I HIGHLY recommend the book Glimmer by Warren Berger. He highlights the ideas of “T-Shaped” people that start with a particular interest/specialty and wind up broadening out as their careers bloom. Picking a topic, exploring it deeply (the lower leg of the T) and then moving on to the next “T”. This creates an amazingly stable platform of sorts to ensure plenty of work in different areas all the while creating a sense of rhythm throughout the life cycle of the career.

It is much more difficult to tell people “what you do” when the question comes up in social or professional settings. In the workplace this can be a benefit because all of a sudden, no one knows what you do, but they understand that you shouldn’t be eliminated from the equation because you provide some sort of intangible value to the equation.

The Cons:

It is much more difficult to tell people “what you do” when the question comes up in social or professional settings. This can also be a drawback when attempting to market yourself as a professional. Professional what? People tend to like to know what they are getting when they open their wallet. This is where leaning back on your original specialty can come in useful. People can cling onto titles.

Clinging onto titles, especially ones that paint you into this corner or that are extremely hard to shake. I had a client that was approaching me for spatial design work and we got talking about his company. I started asking all of these infrastructure designs and within a matter of minutes was able to deduce that the company was feeling some bizarre growing pains and needed help with identity. My client was surprised to hear that was a service offering I provided only based on the fact that all he knew that what I did was what was attached to my title in his head.

Trying to create multi-syllabic made up job titles is a very dangerous route to try and solve this problem. A great article about ridiculous job titles can be found here. This one revolves around UX designers, but the idea crosses all industry.

When you pick your career, being a specialist is almost unavoidable. It is only once you decide to stick with it that the fork in the road comes down to decide whether to stick with it, or become more versed in other areas.

Summary

It really is a personal preference of what you should decide. Personally, I would consider myself much more of a generalist. I get really bored really quick, so it is in my nature to learn as much as possible as fast as possible. Speaking of, be sure to pre order Tim Ferris’ new book The 4-Hour Chef. It’s going to be awesome.

Look, it is a simple as learn lots and you’ll have lots to offer. Eventually you’ll come across an industry or topic that you fall in love with and you’ll want (and need) to explore every niche within that niche that it has to offer.