Should you be a generalist or specialist?

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:
Generalist vs Specialist trend

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.

Say the web application has some errors. Is it Javascript? Is it improperly formed HTML? Is it the CSS? Is it the database permission? Is the database down? Is the server down? Is the code wrong? And are you telling me you need to look for a Javascript expert, a web designer, a database administrator and a programmer in order to fix that problem?

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).

As the world’s problems grow more complex, I propose that the categories start to merge together. You don’t think of them as Javascript or CSS or database problems. You look at them as a web application problem. And you look for someone specialising in developing web applications.

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.