Generally speaking, there aren’t going to be very many circumstances where you choose to hire a jack-of-all-trades dilettante over an experienced specialist.
Think about it. If you’re searching for a cardiothoracic surgeon to implant a pacemaker into your chest, you probably aren’t going to hire a guy who almost flunked out of med school because he spent too much time developing his mobile app. No, you want a dedicated professional who went through a decade of intensive training and has spent thousands of hours in the operating room doing the exact procedure you are about to undergo.
Does this mean the person you hire shouldn’t have hobbies outside of their career? Of course not! But you want to know that the person you’re extending your trust and money to hasn’t split their interests to the point of undermining their expertise. When you hire a specialist, they should have at least enough specialized knowledge to deserve the title.
I tell you this with the backing of over four decades of professional experience behind me — you cannot beat the value of specialized expertise.
I know what you’re going to say. David, I thought that you were going to talk about why it pays to be a generalist. Are the two approaches diametrically opposed?
Well, yes — and no.
It’s true that generalists don’t limit themselves to a single interest in the way that specialists do. Instead, they extend their professional view to several fields. The broadness of their perspective allows them to expand their understanding across disciplines but prevents them from developing the same depth of expertise that a specialist would have.
That said, it would be a mistake to characterize all generalists as shallow hobbyists. When deployed thoughtfully, generalism has its place — and can, in some cases, empower a professional to achieve a specialist perspective even in fields to which they are relative strangers.
I’ll give you an example. In the marketing field, some professionals opt into a practice called T-shaped marketing. A T-shaped marketer usually has deep expertise in one to three marketing practices (content, SEO, pay-per-click, email, etc.) and maintains a baseline familiarity with most others. The name comes from the term’s visualization; if you laid all of the marketing specialties a professional knew along a horizontal line, then drew a vertical line to indicate the depth of expertise they possessed for a single discipline, the resulting diagram would be a T.
As one writer for Digital Marketing explains, “T-shaped marketers aren’t specialists, they’re generalists with one specialty. They can look at an entire marketing strategy and understand each part of it, even if they’ve only run a few PPC campaigns in their day. That’s what makes them so valuable.”
T-shaped marketing is a concept specific to the marketing field. However, the idea underlying it — that generalists are specialists with a broader perspective — can be applied to nearly every industry and interest.
Let me take you into my own experience. By the time I turned 22, I had established myself as a professional photographer, teacher, salesman, marketing consultant, entrepreneur, and psychology student. Since then, I’ve expanded. I’ve become an author, worked in entertainment, and forged over 100 business partnerships in over 100 industries. I’ve needed to become a generalist because there isn’t enough time in the world for one person to specialize in all of the fields I’ve explored.
It’s with this perspective that I’ve realized that the term generalist is a bit of a misnomer. As a generalist, you need to gain a level of competency in every industry you step into if you want to succeed. It’s true that you won’t have decades of experience in a single field — but eventually, you become a specialist in being a generalist.
A generalist accrues a toolbox of knowledge-acquiring skills. They are unerringly curious and have experience enough to know which questions to ask, and how to root out the answers they need to gain foundational knowledge in an industry. When you expand yourself across sectors, you pick up a knack for figuring out who you need to talk to and learn from; experience in the field teaches you to listen and, above all else, eschew assumptions.
Every person is born with two ears and one mouth; shouldn’t it be intuitive that we listen twice as much as we speak? Sure, that might be a cliche to say — but sometimes, cliches exist for a reason.
As Richard Branson once wrote, “The ability to lock in and listen is a skill that has served me well in life. Although it seems to be a dying art, I believe that listening is one of the most important skills for any teacher, parent, leader, entrepreneur or, well, just about anyone who has a pulse.”
Being a generalist doesn’t mean you can abandon your imperative to learn. Never stop asking questions; then, use the answers you receive to formulate more queries. Stop using if only, and start asking, what if?
If you choose to be a generalist, don’t become a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. Instead, become a professional who specializes in doing a little bit of everything…and doing it well.