Original Sites for the Pictures:
- Embrace the PolyMath A. K. R. Scott (Courtesy)
- Specialist vs. non-specialist Val Brains (Courtesy)
- Jack of all-trades vs. Master of One (Shai Aharony on Flickr Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Request for the reader:
*If any of the resources make you sway in either direction or solidifies your current stance, please let me know. I’m super interested in why and how people take decisions and what makes them change their mind.
*If you know of content that helps to answer the question,especially resources for the specialist position, please share.
*If you know where the optimal point lies, do let me know!
Backstory for how this post came about:
I was preparing for a workshop on 80000hours.org. There’s a section in their career guide about the two mistakes people make in regards to building career capital. The second one was “Mistake 2: Not building flexible career capital that will be useful in
the future”. I was trying to really understand what makes people fall into this mistake. I thought to myself: “Maybe there’s a good reason people fall into this “mistake”, which is that those people opt for specialization and niche areas, which really has it’s advantages. So really the question is: what is the optimal trade-off between being a generalist and a specialist?” So I put that as a goal: Research the Specialist-Generalist trade-off (This could also be the optimal point issue in variety spectrum in the Very Useful List for Job Satisfaction). How much did I allocate for that? 1 hour. Yes. 60 minutes. I thought to myself. Don’t get bogged down in the research rabbit hole like always. Just do a quick browsing to see if there are any major studies/models that answer the question.” Yeaahhhh. It didn’t work out that way. I spent maybe 40 hours on the topic.
And surprise surprise, I haven’t settled the issue. The funny thing is that when I revisited the 80k “Mistake 2: Not building flexible career capital that will be useful in the future”, it didn’t really seem to be advocating for a generalist position as I imagined. So… I thought I’d share the resources I came across in regards to the generalist vs specialist . But before that, some of the reasons that cause people to fall into this mistake (based or influenced by the 80k section though not exactly how they say in all points):
- Short-term thinking.
- Not giving career choices enough thought (e.g. English PhD sounds nice so I’m just going to go with it).
- Underestimating soft-skills.
- Lack of awareness about automation threat.
- Inaccurate predictions about one’s future interest/opportunities in the chosen career.
- Not all of these names were fact-checked to make sure that the author correctly represented their position. For example, Peter Theil was classified under specialist because Nick LoveGrove said “Peter Thiel went further in his book Zero to One, arguing that we should each make an explicit and lifelong commitment to a single career objective.” I did not check to see if that is an accurate representation. Think of this post as a draft. So if you have any positive or negative feedback, that would be much appreciated.
- I don’t know why there are more people under the generalist column. My guess is that pro-specialism is the default now so people who are pro-specialism don’t feel the need to defend it. Or perhaps my research keywords favour generalist results.
- People define generalists and specialists differently so I assume there’s a lot of talking past each other.
- A worked on a similar research project before on the optimal point between being adaptable and staying-on-track. The project, perhaps ironically, has been put on the back burner. Eye on the Target Vs. Go with the Flow If you do have answers to that trade-off, do let me know!
Generalists vs Specialists (Breadth vs Depth)
(or at least wanting to redress the “imbalance towards the generalist side):
Note: In Diigo highlights, the most important ones are the green.
1- Josh Kaufmann First 20 hours (contrast to the 10,000 hours in the specialist list)
2- Philip Tetlock (“Foxes vs Hedgehogs”).
3- Patt Flynn “Expert Generalist” (Book: How to Be Better at Almost Everything: Learn Anything Quickly, Stack Your Skills, Dominate )
4- Vikram Mansharmani.
5- Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg (How Google Works).
6- Samuel Arbesman (complexity scientist) www.arbesman.net.
7- Nick Lovegrove : Book (Mosaic: THE SIX DIMENSIONS OF A REMARKABLE LIFE AND CAREER)
8- Multi-potenial-ite by Emilie Wapnick, Scanner by Barbara Sher, The Renaissance Soul by Lobenstine. The Modern Renaissance is also mentioned in Mastery by Greene. Poly-math (although it’s sometimes used to refer to hybrid people).
Specialist (or at least leading to specialism):
1- Calvin Newport.
2- Peter Theil (Zero to one).
“Silicon Valley billionaire and entrepreneur Peter Thiel went further in his book Zero to One, arguing that we should each make an explicit and lifelong commitment to a single career objective.” (Lovegrove, The Danger of Having Too Many Experts)
3- 10,000 hours (Gladwell’s popularization of Ericson, which Ericson doesn’t like).
4- Lee Frederiksen, Ph.D. (behavioural psych) Specialists, Not Generalists, Are More Profitable (Podcast episode)
Hybrid (All from the “Danger of Having Too Many Experts”):
1- Wai Fong Boh and Andrew Ouderkirk (Poly maths. The terms is confusing since it’s used to refer to more extreme generalists as well).
2- T-Shaped Skills (David Guest in 1991, but was popularised by Tim Brown, CEO of design firm IDEO).
3- “flexperts”( Beatrice Van der Heijden).
4- Nick Lovegrove : Book (THE SIX DIMENSIONS OF A REMARKABLE LIFE AND CAREER)
My Highlights on the Debate/trade-off:
Podcast Episodes on the debate/trade-off (Partial list):
#105-Pat Flynn: The Generalist, The Specialist And The Deepest Why 39:16 08/02/2018
021: Pros and Cons of Specialists vs. Generalists 31:54 19/05/2015
Building a team of generalists vs specialists: Unicorns or experts? 11:07 19/07/2016
The Talking Comms Podcast – Episode 3: Social media, Yammer, and generalists vs. specialists 31:31 15/02/2018
038: Jack of all trades – Specialist or generalist? 34:45 08/08/2016 In the tech industry especially, there is a lot of pressure on designers to excel at everything involved in the design and development process and be “unicorns”.
In this episode we discuss how the phrase ‘Jack of all trades; master of none’ applies to t
Bill Review: Specialist vs. Generalist: What’s the Difference? 4:22 13/07/2017
Specialists, Not Generalists, Are More Profitable 15:44 23/07/2013
Episode 11 – Drake’s ‘Scorpion’ & the Great Generalists vs. Specialists Debate 38:09 03/07/2018
First Thoughts – Specialist vs Generalist 5:07 16/07/2018
BNR 167: Marketing’s unicorn: Why we’re all looking for a generalist-specialist 22:43 21/11/2017
Lux Capital Scientist in Residence, Award Wining Science Author Dr. Sam Arbesman Discusses Startups, Being a Generalist vs a Specialist, His journey, and Finding Where He Belongs 34:51 12/06/2018
Generalist or Specialist? | No BS Job Search Advice Radio 5:07 11/01/2018
The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit 11:26 24/09/2018
Ep. 77 – You Must Become A Specialist Not A Generalist 8:55 07/10/2018
EP 90 : Generalists VS Specialists 23:44 18/07/2018
Erwan Le Corre: MovNat, Generalist vs. Specialist, How to Move Naturally | Ep. 19 43:06 20/07/2015
Hiring Sales Generalists Versus Sales Specialists with Eileen Wiens (Intacct) 18:02 13/04/2017
EP04 – From generalist to specialist with Philip Morgan 38:04 25/10/2016 Weekly interviews with creative industry experts, brought to you by former agency owner, consultant and entrepreneur Nathan Powell. Build a better, more successful creative business for yourself.
Peter Winick: Leverage, replicate and Scale 45:46 14/11/2016
Leadership Specialist or Generalist? Episode 306 9:47 24/10/2016
TCG0015 – Should I Be A Specialist Or A Generalist? 6:52 26/02/2016
Generalist Vs. Specialist: Cmd+Edit #004 37:51 18/05/2015
Why Generalist > Specialist 43:37 06/10/2017
020 | The Movement Generalist vs Specialist (And How to Move Like Ido Portal) 34:08 10/04/2017
Be a Generalist and a Specialist and Don’t Forget to Celebrate the “Wins” feat. Stephanie Mardell 20:28 16/07/2018
Simon Chesney – From Talented Generalist to Agile Specialist (Ep. 52) 36:56 07/05/2018
Should you Specialize or Generalize in your Career? 29:33 22/03/2016