• Matt Burrell

The Specialist vs Generalist Myth

In 2019, Facebook cracked down on personality quiz apps. This came after it was revealed that an analytics firm was using one of these apps to secretly extract personal data on millions of users.

The problem was that the 270,000 users of this particular app had unknowingly agreed to share their friends' data. This gave the analytics firm access to personal data on 50 million users, which it used for political purposes.

You might think high-profile privacy cases would put people off doing online quizzes. But despite the privacy concerns, the term "personality quiz" still gets between 10k and 100k Google searches a month.

Why do people enjoy taking these quizzes? Partly it's because people like learning about themselves. And personality quizzes promise to teach you something new - or at least confirm something you already know - about yourself.

But there's another reason. From an early age, we've been conditioned to categorise ourselves or allow ourselves to be assigned a label. Our family, friends, teachers and co-workers have all contributed to this form of social conditioning.

Your Social Identity

When you attended school you were assigned a stream or set based on your academic ability. As you were growing up, your parents casually assigned all manner of labels to you as they sought to clarify your character and capabilities. At work, you're assigned a role and a position. Even society assigns you a demographic, a class.

Knowing what groups you belong to is an important part of your social identity. But it also tacitly limits your potential because it's hard to break free of our labels.

Psychological research has shown that simply being assigned to an arbitrary group - given a random label - can make you biased and prejudiced towards others. Labels also create self-fulfilling prophecies and influence your decisions and behaviour. They can even lower your perceived social status (think of job titles or your 'class').

Therefore you need to be careful what labels you hang on to your identity. When it comes to your vocation or trade, the specialist vs. generalist dichotomy is a categorisation you should stay away from.

To see why, consider what is meant by the terms specialist and generalist.

A False Dichotomy

Being a specialist means spending years learning your craft and honing your skills in a specific field. As a specialist, it's claimed, you could earn more money and become an expert or thought-leader in your industry.

But your specialist skills can become quickly obsolete especially in fast-paced industries like tech. Pigeon-holing yourself can be frustrating. Your opinion in areas outside your expertise might be disregarded or dismissed by your co-workers.

Specialising can also make you more susceptible to automation. This is particularly true if your specific knowledge can be turned into an algorithm and packaged as software.

So is it better to be a generalist? As a generalist you swap depth for breadth. You might learn a wide range of skills and gain more high-level knowledge in your field. Consequently, you'll be more flexible, be to able to 'see the bigger picture', and have transferable skills across multiple domains.

But without a specialist skill set, you'll need to work harder to stand out from the crowd. It's difficult to create a personal brand without choosing a niche or specialism. You can't pitch yourself as an expert in everything because no one will believe you.

So which one do you go for? Luckily, you don't have to choose between being a specialist or a generalist because it's a false dichotomy.

With Knowledge Comes Power

Nobody is a pure specialist because people aren't robots. Automatons are programmed to do one thing - or a set of limited things - using a specific domain of knowledge.

People, on the other hand, have both specialist knowledge and general skills. You can't be a specialist without first developing general skills. No specialisms exist in isolation. Building up a specialism means building up a bank of knowledge of how that specialism applies in a general context.

Personally, I could claim to be a specialist in one specific technology. But in order to be useful, I need to know how that tech can be applied across different platforms. And how it interacts with other tech at both a high- and low-level. This requires a broader, more general knowledge of my field.

Knowledge is like a tree trunk. It is acquired in concentric circles as you learn. As you become more experienced, your trunk grows. The trunk represents your general knowledge.

If you chose to gain some specialist knowledge in your field - which you should - you grow a new branch. But your trunk of general knowledge remains intact and continues to grow.

Some people have tried to explain this truth by inventing new categories like 'generalizing specialist' or 'specializing generalist' - or as having 'T-Shaped' skills. But declaring new categories is just the same self-limiting label trap.

Be a Lifelong Learner

Refuse to be called either a specialist or a generalist. You're not a specialism. You're not your job. Instead, form an identity around being an adaptable, quick learner.

Learning is the secret behind both successful 'specialists' and 'generalists'. Rather than being really good at one thing, be exceptional at learning new things.

Be quick to read and act on signals of change in your industry. Keep an eye on the market demand for your skills. Experiment with ideas, play with concepts and adapt to new situations.

Once you take on the mindset of being an exceptional lifelong learner, you can then be whatever you want, whenever you want.

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