Generalist: Someone who knows enough about a lot of things to be a useful source of information for most everyday problems but who probably wouldn’t be able to get enough in the weeds to fix major problems of a specific nature.
Specialist: Someone who knows a whole lot about one or two things and who are lifesavers for major problems in those specific areas, but can’t really help with any problems outside of those areas.
First off, which type do you think you are?
Secondly, which type seems to be valued the most in your organization?
Thirdly, how rigid do you think these types are? Like, if you think you’re a specialist, how hard do you think it would be for you to turn into a generalist, if you had to?
Personally, I’m starting to see the real value in a generalist approach. There are so many odd-shaped holes in my workplace, and it seems to me that people who can adapt themselves to fit into those holes are seen as more valuable, even if they don’t fit those holes that well. Such a strategy provides job security when the organization shifts and also makes you a good fit for management, if that’s where you want to go. But it also seems to me that specialists are more likely to make a name for themselves in their field. I’ve noticed that management will gladly work around a person’s single-mindedness if their expertise is strong and important enough to the organization.
As a lifetime career generalist, I’ve found my field has moved to a very narrow specialist model. They don’t hire someone who can build websites server to browser; they hire forty people each with a very narrow but years-deep niche specialty.
Yep, Joe-Bob can wire frame like the devil, but can’t spell k-a-t. Susie Q can churn out overlay graphics all day, but can’t spell H-T-M-L. So no one can contribute outside their crevasse, and the results, workforce and efficiency all suffer.
I’m a generalist, so I’d like to think we’re more valuable, but the truth is, there’s no answer.
You can be indispensable as a specialist, but as soon as your employer gets new software or automates the production line, or your division is sold to a competitor that already has its own specialists, you go from indispensable to valueless in a heartbeat.
Generalists tend to be more effective managers, but the competition is fierce for jobs at that level and as the OP noted, a specialist has a better chance to build a reputation to get into position to be considered for promotion.
One area where generalists stand out is in sales, where it’s more important to be prepared for any weird issue the customer may raise. After all, you can always call the specialist in for help.
In my experience, it’s more common for a generalist to develop a specialty. But if you’re a specialist who can broaden your skills and perspective, you’ll be a top managerial candidate.
As a primary care physician, I’m a generalist, and find it much more rewarding to be a journeyman in dozens of fields, rather than a master of one field.
However, I see more and more these days that primary care physicians are expected to refer anything halfway complicated to a specialist, rather than taking care of it themselves. I can deal with over 90% of my patients’ issues, and fortunately in my situation I am allowed to do that. But it’s getting tougher to do so, in the world of corporate medicine. I would not recommend primary care (family medicine, general internal medicine) as a specialty to medical students anymore.
Sorry to fight the hypothetical but “both working cooperatively” is the right answer to which is better in most cases. And not sure about the definitions either.
An organization benefits from those with deep narrow skills and knowledge sets and those who know and understand enough about the different skills and knowledge sets to coordinate them effectively, to creatively translate and transfer solutions from one set to another, and to prevent the dysfunction that occurs when skill sets and knowledge bases become isolated silos.
I’m a generalist. Like QtM a primary care physician, but in what he might think of as corporate medicine. I can handle most of what comes my way and do but more importantly I know enough about what I cannot handle that know who can handle it, can get the problem to them, and can work with them to accomplish the task. I would strongly recommend primary care to a medical student.
How much is each valued? By the organization, equally or a slight bias to the generalist. By society, as reflected in compensation, the specialist.
I’ve always been more of a generalist by nature. I have always tended to look at overall systems and interactions while getting bored quickly if I know every little detail of tiny niche. ROTC, with the Army reinforcing that officers are generalists, reinforced that.
In both the military and a couple civilian manufacturing/logistics support to manufacturing positions being a generalist worked well. They could give me problems, not little pieces in my narrow lane, and trust I’d get it done.
For a while, before deployments trashed my IT career, I was a mainframe computer programmer. The culture there valued specialists for promotion to management. It actually wasn’t always to their best interest. One absolutely brilliant programmer who sucked with people made manager. I had a niche though. For a while I was on the special projects team that was less than half mainframe programmers along with folks coding desktop apps to access that information. They could and did throw me at things where no specialist existed. Input from me, even as a relatively junior programmer, did influence some of our business practices. Other staff came to me on a host of issues even if they ended up following up with the relevant specialist for the details. I wasn’t in the least surprised that a project that involved a couple meetings with the CIO got dumped in my lap. By default I wouldn’t have been the person they looked to put in charge though. I was a pretty average “code monkey” and would have had to try to overcome the culture to ever be a manager. My generalism was both an asset and a liability.
Personally, generalism is better. That’s simply because by both temperament and experience I am better suited for it. Stick me in a narrow specialist position and I will get bored and start looking for a way out. I probably won’t perform at a high level in the long term either. In general, I think specialists are less well suited for higher management/leadership positions since those positions require working across specialties. Those positions also tend to require more flexibility to deal with new issues/holes in current business practices.
Better is relative though. What an individual values in their career and how that career fits into their life matters for making a personal choice about what is best. There’s roles for both in a healthy and effective organization. I think best, at least in a large organization, is making sure to mentor and develop a mix of both generalist and specialists since both bring different strengths to the team.
Generally speaking, neither can be said to be best. Obviously. But in specific situations, one or the other might be more ideal.
Not trying to be snotty or clever with that, it is my real answer.
I am not a tremendously successful person myself, though I have both some special skills, and excellent understanding of “big picture” concepts that make me good at generalized things as well.
I’ve seen that what makes one person more successful than another, is really luck. I don’t mean luck in the sense that there’s no work involved, or that the person doesn’t deserve great respect, I mean luck as in that the timing and the location of all the elements has to CHANCE to be in place, for either the generalist or the specialist to succeed.
Specialist here as I specialize in one particular area of law. There are lawyers who are generalists in the sense that take on almost any case that walks in the door. I wouldn’t be able to handle that kind of life. I personally feel terrible giving advice to a client in a field where I am learning things as I go along.
monstro, you seem to be asking not what is best for the organization, or culture, or society, but what is most likely to be more successful for the individual. I wonder if with your biology background you can make some analogy to what is best for species?
IME, generalists are better suited for management positions as they are able to understand the issues presented and can recognize when they need to bring in a specialist to deal with a specific issue. The problem is that some generalists consider themselves to be specialists in areas that they just don’t have the skills to tackle the problem.
IMHO, it’s better to be a specialist. A generalist will always lose out to a specialist when it comes to a particular job, trade, etc. unless it’s a pretty generic job. Someone with a background in engineering in a deep, specific field will always beat out a generalist for an engineering job who has only broad, shallow, knowledge.
The Fox or the Hedgehog: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’.
As an individual, I am a generalist, to a fault.
In business strategy, the working belief is that hedgehogs beat foxes at the corporate level. Do that thing you do. Over the decades, “that thing” has come to be referred to as a company’s Core Competency. Clarifying what your company’s CC focuses on is key to figuring out how scale your business.
What inspired the OP was a post on Reddit. A young man is sweating over the fact that he doesn’t have anything he could claim to be in an expert in, like all his friends and associates seem to have. My advice to him is that a lot people don’t have one skill that they are absolute masters of, but rather a bunch of skills that they are merely adequate in. Like, when people put down on their resume that they are proficient in MS Excel, I doubt most of them know how to write their own macros or know how to write an array formula. A pivot table may even be beyond what most Excel users know, assuming my coworkers are representative. And yet if you can put together a spreadsheet and know enough to get basic summary statistics out of it, then you’ve got a skill you can market for most positions. At least you know enough to be able to get google to help you with problems that are beyond your current abilities.
After I wrote this reply, I began to wonder if what I said was really true across the board. It is true in my experience, but I work in an environment where the problems we tackle are pretty broad and constantly evolving. But maybe if I worked in a business that occupies a single niche, then a generalist would be at a disadvantage.
The evolutionary history of a population determines whether it leans more to a generalist or specialist approach. Generalists tend to be forged in environments that are dynamic. It makes sense to be a generalist when your potential food sources are constantly changing (as they do with the seasons). Specialists tend to take root in environments that are more stable and reliable. They often have to coevolve with another population that is also particular, to further entrench their monopoly. Seems to me that specialists wind up with more negative trade-offs than generalist do. Like the panda has a plentiful food source because it doesn’t have to fight off a lot of competitors for it. But there is a reason for this; bamboo just isn’t that good nutritionally. So while the panda doesn’t have to hunt like other bears, it has to constantly eat crummy food just to get through the day.
If I were advising a newly forming species on which side of the generalist-specialist spectrum it should aim for, I would point them to the generalist side. Fitness-wise, it is the safest because you’re at a lower risk of catastrophe when you have a more diversified portfolio. There are niches out there just waiting to be exploited, no doubt. But there are not a whole lot of them at this point, and the good ones have been taken.
Seems to me that the current economy values the generalist more than the specialist, especially at the entry-level. I’ve seen job announcements that seem to be looking for candidates with every skill imaginable, and of course all of them say something like “good interpersonal skills are a must!”
Not necessarily. It depends on how well that engineer markets him/herself, and who he/she is marketing to. A generalist will probably know enough to be able to sound like a specialist, especially if the position is entry-level and the hiring manager is a generalist him/herself. For instance, my boss is convinced that I’m a statistician just because I know how to use statistics. He doesn’t know how wrong he is (and I’ve stopped trying to correct him). So if my organization needed to actually hire a statistician and he was the hiring manager, he would be fooled quite easily by someone like me who can talk a good game, but is actually an imposter.
I’m glad you’ve found such a position and role. Primary care pediatrics (I’m 97% sure that’s what you do, please correct me if I’m wrong) is a wonderful fusion of primary and specialty skills. Same for ob/gyn, another specialty where a lot of primary care is done.
In general family medicine (which in my career has consisted of delivering babies, taking care of sick kids, casting basic fractures, doing general internal medicine and routine gynecology and family planning, doing ER work, neuro, endocrine, etc. etc. etc.) I’m told by many of my colleagues that they’re not allowed to practice to their skill level in their various areas, as a matter of practice policy. Liability costs are mentioned, but there’s also a sense that the specialists need to be kept busy as possible, especially since they get reimbursed at higher rates. As does the medical corporation as a whole, when specialty care occurs.
The generalist physicians of my generation that I encounter generally tell me some variation of the above, and also tell me they can’t wait to get out of practice because their caseloads are too full of the ‘worried well’ and even with those cases they’re not given enough time with patients. Which personally is what I enjoy the most.
I’ll end the ‘old fart’ rant here, and I truly do hope today’s generalists in medicine are enjoying careers more like yours than like some that I’ve observed. And I’m damned grateful I’ve found a particular niche which allows me to practice to my skill level and continue to expand my experience.