The short answer is: be both.
That seems to cheat you of an interesting discussion, so let’s talk more on it. Let’s define the terms first. Generally speaking (that’s not a personal bias, that’s how the language is used…), a generalist is a person whose interests and skills are varied. A specialist is a person who’s very interested and/or skilled in 1 (maybe 2) area(s).
So why are specialists highly sought after? As a rough benchmark, let’s use Google Trends:
One possible reason is that people feel safer going to a specialist for help. For example, people would rather see a lung specialist, or heart specialist, or kneecap specialist than a general practitioner. Even for small problems.
I’m not saying it’s wrong. It makes sense.
I’m saying, as the world grows more complex, so does its problems. As the complexity grows, it becomes harder to categorise those problems. Thus making it difficult to know who to consult.
The general consensus (there’s the word again) seems to be to focus on your strengths and correct your weaknesses as best as possible (or completely ignore them).
So should you be a generalist or a specialist? I would say be both if you can. The world needs both. As Seth Godin says, specialise in being a generalist.
It feels like an intractable proposition. How do you know many things and know one thing very well at the same time? How do you stand still and move at the same time? How do you clench your fist and unclench your fist at the same time?
Well, don’t think of them as opposite sides of a solution. Think of them as the same solution.