I’ve probably been to almost every 7Eleven in a 6-mile radius of my apartment. 7Eleven is the poor (wo)man’s Starbucks. Sometimes I’m in line behind the guy buying his 40 and a pack of cigarettes. Other times it’ll be the accountant who’s grabbing a protein bar before hitting the gym (that goal of having a giant neck isn’t going to fulfill itself).
I’m not an expert on 7Eleven. I consider myself what you could call a 7Eleven generalist with a specialization in taquitos* and mediocre hot chocolate (if that’s a thing).
The Generalist vs. The Specialist
Having a broad skill set and a varied professional background, I’ve taken an interest in the whole generalist versus specialist debate.
What’s the difference between a generalist and a specialist? A generalist knows less and less about more and more until eventually he or she knows nothing about everything. A specialist knows more and more about less and less until eventually he or she knows everything about nothing. Being either a generalist or a specialist is useless, and anyone trying to be both at the same time inevitably self-destructs. – George Bradt (BRAVE Leadership)
I worry about self-destructing (though arguably, I should be more worried about my dietary decisions—I don’t eat taquitos everyday, for the record).
Some Pros & Cons
There are obvious pros and cons for being a generalist or a specialist.
Specialists, who master their craft, tend to be rewarded if their skill is high value. However, a specialist might inadvertently cap their growth, which could cap professional opportunities. There also tend to be fewer jobs for specialists (depending on the field), but there’s also less competition for those jobs.
Generalists can cover a lot of topics at varying degrees of depth, having a solid base of knowledge with the ability to follow industry trends, can be valuable, but with more variety there will be additional time spent researching topics not adequately known or understood.
Maybe not as important, but generalists are better for pub trivia nights. You definitely want the person who knows a little bit about a lot of things on your team. But if you’re in a life or death Scrabble match, you’re going to want that specialized knowledge of the highest scoring 2 and 3 letter words.[Side note: Want some fascinating insight into the competitive Scrabble world? Read Word Freak; so interesting, and I feel like a smarty pants every time I play the word “qi”.]
Which Is It: Generalist or Specialist?
Based on a 20+ year study with 284 professional forecasters, Professor Phillip Tetlock found that those who knew a little about a lot were more accurate forecasters. He finds in favor for the generalist.
But, personally, I think it depends. What field are you in? What are your goals? Whether you go the specialist or generalist route depends on your answers those questions. Depends on what YOU want to do.
If you want to be the world’s greatest dolphin trainer, you’re going to need some specialized training. Being a greater fisherman (or fisherwoman), in general, isn’t going to equip you to work with dolphins (especially since dolphins aren’t even fish).
Because I work in the world of ecommerce and content marketing, I being mostly a generalist works for me. I have enough knowledge in multiple complementary areas to converse, strategize, and execute on marketing ideas, campaigns, initiatives, etc.
I say “mostly a generalist” because while being a generalist still requires a deep foundation and understanding how the pieces fit together, being both detailed-oriented AND big picture, I’ve still had to narrow my focus.
Be a Specialized Generalist
This is my take on the compromise between generalist and specialist: I think as a generalist you should have a couple of things you do exceptionally well to differentiate yourself from the crowd. So, be a specialized generalist.
You simply can’t be known for everything, hoping someone with money will pay you, but you should be known for something. You have to think about what brings value to the clients you want to work with.
In The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing #12 is the Law of Line Extension. It basically says that there is pressure to extend the equity of the brand. The same law applies to people. To be successful, even as a generalist, you still have to narrow the focus, to build your position or your brand. I think Ries and Trout would agree with me: You cannot be all things to all people.
So, be a Writer who can write a lot of things well enough, but kills it on ad copy and sales letters for SaaS companies.
Be a UX designer who can provide detailed wireframes for most any project, but is exceptional at creating beautiful, intuitive layouts for dentist offices.
Be a Programmer who can cover most frontend stuff with HTML and CSS, but is a whiz at building mobile apps with Ruby on Rails.
In general, I’m a good writer, but I excel at making content easy to understand and take action on. I help customers understand what they’re reading and what to do with it. In short, I provide clarity.
Take the general knowledge you have in whatever professional arena you find yourself in and pick a single specific skill to specialize in. Pick the niche or audience you want to serve. Then, add complementary skills as needed.
Decide what you do and who you do it for. Easier said than done, I know.
Ask yourself what you have the potential to offer that is so unique and compelling and helpful that no computer could replace you, no one could outsource you, no one could steal your product and make it better and then club you into oblivion (not literally). – Justine Musk (ex-wife of Elon)
* If you find yourself in a 7Eleven wanting to grab something quick, but not horrible tasting, the taco and cheese taquito never disappoints. My second choice is the corn dog nuggets. Don’t get the mini tacos; you’ll regret it.
Image: 7Eleven photo