The debate between generalist vs specialist is ever going.
People have different opinions on both sides. Some people think, to become an authority you have to become a specialist, whereas, some people believe generalists are more unique than specialists.
Especially, in this digital age this discussion has become more relevant.
20 years back there was not much opportunity to learn multiple things. Even if it was available, it was expensive and very time-consuming.
Learning a particular thing and then specializing in that was normal. Even today it is a norm.
For Indians, options were quite a few. Become a doctor, engineer, lawyer, teacher, etc..
But today, with the revolution of the internet, things have changed. If you have a zeal for learning, you can learn as many things as you want.
A doctor can learn robotics, an engineer can learn music, a scientist can learn digital marketing, etc.
Before the industrial revolution, people mostly were skilled in multiple things. You can hardly find anyone from that era who was skilled in only one thing.
That’s the era where people like Leonardo Da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Jagadish Chandra Bose, Aristotle, etc. born.
Then came the industrial revolution and industries required skilled laborers. The demand for skilled laborers increased during that time and people focused more on specialization to get jobs.
But since then time has changed, we are today in the digital age.
So who are better today generalists or specialists?
A specialist is ‘one who specializes in a particular occupation, practice, or field of study’; whereas a generalist is ‘one whose skills, interests, or habits are varied.’
If you talk about traditional academic education, it still focuses on going down deep in a particular subject. It focuses on specialization.
When you were in schools you studied everything, math, science, history, biology, literature. Then you filter some subjects in college and this filtering goes on the more you move on the academic ladder.
In Ph.D., people don’t even study a subject, they study a very narrow area within a subject. The traditional education system doesn’t encourage you to gain other skills except for your specialized subject.
20-30 years back this system was working fine because there was a scarcity of experts and various organizations or industries needed expert people.
But today, there are too many experts in a given field. In whichever subject you are specializing, there are millions of others who are pursuing the same specialization.
If you are not excellent or extraordinary then chances are very less that you will be regarded as a true expert in your field.
So how do you become an authority in your field even if you are not extraordinary?
Learn multiple skills. Then stack up your skills to become unique.
You may be studying physics but if you can also learn marketing, you will become unique. How many people do you think have a physics degree with marketing skills?
Very few or none.
You can study literature and can also learn about cosmology or content writing. You can learn whatever interests you.
The idea is to stack up your skills in such a way that you can present the world a unique combination of skills that very few people in the world have.
Our education system encourages us to become T-shaped experts.
First, study multiple subjects in schools and then choose one to specialize. This is great if you can truly master a subject deeply.
But in today’s era, it has certain limitations like David Epstein mentioned in his book ‘Range’.
1. Career inflexibility
Almost every year we witness the rise of new technology, new business models, new industries.
Today by the time a student graduates from college, new things emerge in the market than what he had studied in college or university.
The traditional education is failing to cope up with the market needs. If you are too focused on specilization and not acquiring any other skills, you might find it difficult to find job outside your micro niche.
2. Risk of becoming obsolete
Specialists who study a very narrow area might be at risk of being replaced by technology tomorrow.
If you are not evolving and making yourself unique by learning some other skills, you might be at risk of becoming obsolete tomorrow.
Today, technology has started replacing lawyers in the US and in many other parts of the world.
With the rise of artificial intelligence, many professions might become obsolete tomorrow.
3. Narrow worldview
Often specialization makes you so narrow that you cannot see the world beyond it.
Sometimes specialists have too narrow a focus. They spend years even their entire careers on a narrow subject.
Because of this, they are prone to confirmation bias.
David Epstein in his book ‘Range’ said-
” The experts that we listen to are frequently useless at making accurate predictions about their area of expertise.”
Experts often make inaccurate predictions due to their narrow worldview.
That doesn’t mean you should not become a specialist in anything. Specialization gives you a chance to earn you more money by becoming an authority.
But your approach towards specialization should be different.
Instead of becoming a T-shaped expert, you should focus on becoming a V-shaped expert.
Who is a V-shaped expert?
Unlike a T-shaped expert, a V-shaped expert doesn’t randomly narrow his subject area, rather he/she deliberately learn multiple skills to finally narrow his focus and become expert in that.
You can imagine this model from both side, down to up or up to down.
You can be a specialist with one skill at a particular function. But over time, you can learn many skills and handle a broad range of duties to grow in your job.
In this scenario, you are going from bottom to top of the V model. You are a specialized-generalist.
On the other hand, you can be good at multiple things and can handle different duties pretty well. Along with it, you also spend your time to acquire greater proficiency in certain skills.
Here you are moving from top to bottom in the V model and can be called generalized-specialist.
Having a wide range of experience will increase of chances of success in whatever field you are in.
You can be more innovative by utilizing your different skills.
But of course, it’s not easy. To reach that level where you can innovate something very unique in your niche, you have to give yourself permission to fail.
You might take up a job that is not your dream job. You will have to try many things out of your comfort zone sometimes.
To become a great generalist (who has unique abilities) you have to explore. A wide variety of experiences will help you to become a unique persona.
Roger Federer, the greatest tennis player was not tennis enthusiastic from his childhood. In fact, he used to play all kinds of sports like basketball, badminton, skateboarding, soccer, etc.
In fact, only in his late teens, he started taking tennis seriously.
Roger Federer believes playing a diverse collection of sports helped him to develop superior hand-eye coordination and athleticism he has today.
Studies have shown that Nobel laureates are more likely to be polymaths compared to regular scientists.
Whoever you are and whatever is your subject of expertise, don’t narrow your focus too early, try to learn and explore whatever interests you.
At the end, nothing go waste. As Steve Jobs said-
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
Don’t limit yourself.
Learn things (if you find interesting) even if you do not find any correlation at present with your current area of study. You never know how it’s going to benefit you in the future.
Be a V-shaped expert.
If you are an adventurous person then I have a challenge for you.
See the image below-
The challenge is to experience or do as many works as possible listed above.
You don’t have to do for one year. The aim is to experience even for a week.
When you broaden your vision and explore your life, you can truly achieve greatness.
Always remember the lines said by American author Tony Morrison
“You make the job; it doesn’t make you.
You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.”
So who are you at present a generalist or a specialist?
Let me know your thoughts below in the comment section.
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