Are you a specialist or a generalist?

The UnAwakened always rewards Specificity.Only the Masters enjoy Balanced Versatility.

Image by Argenberg

Specialisation is highly regarded in this modern world.I have discussed career goals with many professionals, and I am yet to find someone who tells me “I want to develop a broad range of skills – I want to be a generalist“. But as the quote above (from an article by Steve Ilg) says, only the true masters enjoy balanced versatility.

There is that pesky word again: Balance. I don’t remember ever using it as often as I have over the last 18 months of my life.So why is ‘balanced versatility’ so important?

Because its alternative – excessive specificity , or ultra-specialisation – comes with a price tag that we should all realise is just too high for most of us. Truth is, no one has noticed.

Let’s talk about careers. Developing highly specialised skills is rewarded by higher salaries. As the supply for those rare skills in the market place is smaller, the price for the services increases. This is true in professional sports, in the corporate world, and even in the medical sciences. Professionals seek to gain a deep level of specialist knowledge, so that they will eventually be recognised as ‘experts’ in their field; write insightful articles; and receive awards at international conferences.

You can also look in the direction of social relationships. People advises you to develop your unique personality and flaunt it. Be generic, and no one will notice. Be unique, and people will appreciate you for your individuality. This advice, we are told, has proven to work in today’s world.

What about the scientific domain? Same thing. I challenge you to find a scientist who wants to be a mathematician, chemist, and philosopher, all at the same time. No, the knowledge domains are too vast to have a generalist knowledge base. Scientists accept as proven wisdom that you’re better off choosing a very specific topic and becoming well-recognised for the high quality of your work. I am sure somewhere out there we can find aPhD on the physiology of the left cornea of redheads in rural North Ireland.

Behind all these examples is the insidious influence of the industrial revolution. With the arrival of organised industry in the late 18th / early 19th century, we started accepting that high degrees of specialisation lead to efficiencies of scale, mass-production of items at low cost, and larger economic markets. Along the industrial revolution we then saw a social revolution that applied the same principle to the fabric of our own culture and society.

Unfortunately, this revolution came with some nasty side effects. A high degree of specialisation has a significant and often hidden cost. Over-specialisation stiffles creativity, generates work and social environments lacking on diversity and its benefits, and reduces the level of innovation. In the sports arena, over-specialisation will lead to unhealthy and unbalanced individuals. Don’t believe me? Just look at this picture of an ultra-endurance athlete. Can you guess how old she is?

Ultra-Endurance Athlete

She is only 45!!

Overspecialisation, like most things taken to an extreme, is not healthy. The question is what are you trying to become: a generalist, or a specialist?


2 responses to “Are you a specialist or a generalist?

  1. Coincidences are always surprising. When I read your post I was surprised about how similar questions have been of great interest to me. To answer your quesiton you might want to read this which speaks about the relation between generalists and specialist:

    And, more incredible still, I am also Colombian!


  2. Andres,

    thanks for your comment (I can’t believe I acknowledged your contribution by email, but never on the post itself!). As people in our country of origin often say, ‘Mas vale tarde que nunca’ (Better late than never’.

    Although your post on this topic was particularly long, I found it very thoughtful and well articulated. Thanks for leaving the link for other readers.


    -The Crazy Colombian

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