Generalists vs. Specialists


I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between generalists and specialists lately. As I think about my own future, I wonder what I need to do to keep progressing.

A while ago, I ran across the idea of a generalist. Puttylike is a website for “multipotentialites”, or people who have the capacity to be awesome at whatever they put their mind to. Multipotentialites are the most extreme form of generalists…their passions ebb and flow as they move from one interest to the next, often coming *close* to mastery but jumping ship as soon as they no longer feel challenged or purposeful. Finding a community of like-minded multipotentialites was a great experience and I frequently check in to see what they’re up to. You find a lot of freelancers in that lot because freelancing gives people the ability to jump from project to project, interest to interest.

Even though I work for a public organization, my generalist tendencies shine through. I started in a technology support role, took over a transportation department (while keeping many tech responsibilities), and have since added in emergency management work, phone maintenance, and business office tasks. I’m the classic jack-of-all-trades, and it’s gotten me far in a short amount of time.

In a recent conversation about my future in the organization it was made clear to me that the highest achievers where I work are “scholars” and “practitioners”. It took a while for me to comprehend what that meant…but I think the key points are that a scholar knows stuff, and a practitioner does stuff. A scholar and practitioner is a subject matter expert and exemplifies the best practices that they have learned. But, bringing this post full-circle, it is extremely hard for a generalist to be a scholar-practitioner. A generalist’s tendency is to get really good at something (but not perfect) and then move on, while a specialist’s tendency is to become a scholar-practitioner – to become *the* expert in the field, and to *do* it for an entire career.

As I read more and more on the subject of specialists and generalists I found an article written by Lev Kaye on LinkedIn about the future of the two types of workers:

Two types of people will own the future: Generalizing-Specialists and Specializing-Generalists. Imagine you hired a Specialist who was great at one particular function, and over time you found out he or she was also good at handling a broader range of duties, and eager to grow? You’d be thrilled, and you’d want to work with that person a long time. Now imagine you had in your organization a Generalist who wore multiple hats and could handle a range of duties, but who also spent time acquiring greater proficiency in certain specific skills? You’d be equally thrilled, and you’d want to work with that person a long time.

Let’s call the first person above a Generalizing-Specialist, and the second person a Specializing-Generalist. Each person starts out as one type, but realizes he or she needs to become the other type as well. I’ve hired and managed each of these hybrid types, and if you’re lucky, so have you. These people tend to be the MVP’s of their organizations – the people everyone deeply appreciates, no matter how junior or senior their roles. Hopefully you’ll recommend them for promotions (although their shoes are hard to fill) and likely you’ll lose sleep over your fear that they’ll jump to another organization.

How did these people become MVP’s? They made themselves that way. Starting out as either ‘broad’ or a ‘deep’, they sought opportunities to learn more, either horizontally or vertically, and in so doing, increased their value significantly.

So, according to Kaye, the key to progression for me will be to become a Specializing-Generalist – to continue wearing all those hats, but to focus on one or two things and master them. Become a scholar-practitioner in those particular fields. That’s the key to getting ahead in my current organization, anyway. I thought Kaye’s description of these hybrid workers is on point. They are the MVPs (I have no problem saying that about myself, I think my work is excellent!) and in some ways I have already started making the transition from broad to deep in a few areas. I travel the state teaching transportation courses, I’m able to teach others about emergency management, etc. I am on my way to becoming a scholar-practitioner in several fields, but I certainly have a long way to go.


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