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Are You A Generalist Or Specialist?

I’ve often heard people warn young emerging professionals about the dangers of being too ‘narrow’ in their professional capabilities.  I think this is dangerous advice. From my experience, there are two types of people in the professional world: generalists and specialists.

Generalist vs. SpecialistIt’s quite the dilemma – should one aspire to be a utility player considering most organisations are under growing pressure and perhaps the jack of all trades covers many bases the specialist can’t.

But are generalists easily interchanged because they there qualities are not focused?

Honestly there’s probably room for both. However, I think people who are doubtful of the specialist need to stop. They’re not ‘narrow’.

  • The people who often push the boundaries in a certain discipline are those who have the 10,000 hours of focused experience.
  • It’s simply not possible to be good at everything – what I fear is that I’m not focused enough and if you believe the Alfa Romeo strapline, ‘mediocrity is a sin’, then striving for diversity may indeed be a strive in vain to be the mediocre professional at a long list of disciplines.

There is a flip side though.

  • The generalist can often make a great senior manager.
  • Dipping the toes in the different functions of multiple departments and of course, the entrepreneur – turning their hand to run and perform functions in the cash-strapped start-up.
  • Look at the Richard Bransons of this World – it’s hard to quantify their exact talent in comparison to the Einstein’s and champion athletes.

My conclusion is this:

if you’re a specialist – great!  If you’re a generalist – also great!

They are both equally important and both have room to work together in the corporate world.  What I would stress is this though – are you happy being what you are?  Have you thought about whether you a generalist or specialist?  Does being a generalist or specialist fit with your aspirations?  Today is the today to change if not.  Starting focusing or start diversifying, but at least recognise you can only really ever be one of the above.

Are you a generalist or specialist?  Are there other types?  What are the advantages/disadvantages?

ME: Marketing Manager, SaaS; co-founder of; Social Media Junkie; MSc in Strategic Management; Opinions my own and they may offend (not intentionally of course).

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  • Hi Connor, Thanks for raising some really great questions in this post, and I think you make some on the money observations about both. Let me throw something else into the mix, it’s my opinion that many (probably most) are neither generalists nor specialists, they’re mediocreists. My point is that, I think the best advice is to be superb at one thing or very good at a few, rather than average at lots.

  • Hi Connor – good, thought provoking topic! Although I can’t believe you made me calculate how many hours of experience I have focused on marketing – 26,880 or thereabouts! Feeling a little tired now….

  • Now there’s food for thought.  I think we all start out as generalists.  For some it is simply a matter of specialising in one or two areas.  The nice thing about being either is that you can with effort become the other if you choose.  To dabble in both, for business though, is not good, in my opinion.

  • Connor Keppel

    Agree completely. Stick to the guns! Although you could argue perhaps a generalist is a specialist in itself?

  • Connor Keppel

    Wow – you truly are a specialist so

  • Connor Keppel

    Love this Niall.  Very well put. Thanks for reading!

  • So Connor, taking what @nialldevitt:disqus said into account does that mean that someone is generally mediocre, specially mediocre, generally special, or…?  The combination with this could go on and on, lol.

  • I was looking for image ideas and stumbled onto your blog post. I wrote a similar post yesterday. To discover your career passion, I think the best bet is to start off as a Generalist before moving into a Specialist.

  • Thanks Marie & great idea, I’m going to look into that 🙂

  • Val

    Helpful post thank you. What’s the recommended length for a blog article please. 

  • Great post! 

  • Niall! La La LOVE this post! Each tips feels new and fresh to me. I especially love the bonus tip – what a great idea. How often do many of us shoot off an email filled with valuable info, yet never would we have thought ‘let’s blog this answer.’ Cheers! Ande

  • Hi Ande, thanks for your comment & I’m glad that you found the tips useful. I’m a big fan of using blogging over e-mails where possible 🙂

  • Thanks Ashley 🙂

  • Hi Val, I don’t have a very strong opinion on this! The common answer is shorter works better but I’ve seen longer posts (1000 – 3000 words) work well, provided the information is valuable and the post is very well formatted. Thanks for the question, Niall 

  • Thanks Kyle 🙂

  • Helen, it there nothing that gets past you? 😉

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