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Reading time: 9 minutes

An exploration of the Generalist versus the Specialist

A look at the motivational levers behind each ‘discipline’

As the world starts to open up again, at least in Europe, many will likely be trying to figure out how to get back into the playing field. And many will be asking themselves whether it is better to be a Generalist or a Specialist?

Employers or clients will largely be looking for both types in any prospective individuals. The reasoning for this is that they wish to improve the creativity and innovative capabilities of their teams or businesses. Being a generalist and a specialist is what will give you distinct market value.

The truth then is that you should aim to be both and not one of either. The best outcome is to be both deep, a specialist, and flexible, a generalist. And the reality is that we are likely all already both. You may not see it currently, but it is true, and hopefully, through this piece, you will discover your specialist points and generalist skillsets.

If you wish to expand upon either though, the recommended method for learning is to start with the generalist position, developing a broad foundation, upon which you can build and move more towards a specialised point, something akin to the tip of an iceberg or a pyramid.

To discover how your pyramid of generalism and specialism looks like, we will use a gamified method of creating a ‘skill tree’. For those unfamiliar, skill trees are usually used in RPG’s to depict how your character progresses through the game and what special abilities they unlock and can augment.

As you can see from the example, there are different skill trees for different situations. One perspective is to have a specialist skill tree and generalist skill tree. In essence, having different skill trees for different situations. Another viewpoint is to have many specialist skill trees and that this overall collection of skill trees is the generalist skillset that you have. We’ll later explore how this can be achieved.

For those wanting to know what we will be covering in this piece, i.e. a TL;DR, then:

  • Be a theme specialist – what a specialist is and how to present yourself as a specialist.
  • Be an abilities generalist – what a generalist is, what the abilities a generalist has and how to make the best use of this.
  • Visualising your skill tree – a short exercise on how to create and develop your skill trees and how these can be used to promote your brand.
  • Final thoughts – a few thoughts on how to move and some points of interest for those wishing to explore the generalist vs. specialist debate.

Be a theme Specialist

Being a specialist is knowing your topic or theme inside out. But you may have a few theme’s to pick from. Your course of action is to do highly targeted self-selling of your brand as a specialist in that area. To do this, before you even approach an employer or client, you must exhaustively research everything about them. As you research them, the preferred skill tree that you should promote will become clear to you.

Being able to present the correct skill tree to a prospective client or employer that speaks to what they are looking for will give you an edge. Especially as no-one is looking for an individual that they need to pay to learn how to become the specialist they want. They will, however, be happy to invest in improving the specialist that they have acquired.

Do remember that when you are selling/promoting your specific specialised skill tree, that you do this with a singular focus. You must come across as the epitome of what the client or employer are looking for. This isn’t a form of lying, at least not if you have done your research correctly. Because you will know what they want and what you should present. Presenting something that isn’t true will only backfire later down the line.

Presenting your specialism will give you the advantage in that you have a clear interest in that theme or topic, therefore your knowledge on the subject matter will be up to date. Specialists can keep up with the fast pace that occurs in their chosen field, this is due to them having the foundational knowledge inherent to it. A specialist can, therefore, build upon existing knowledge much more easily.

You can even use your specific specialist skill tree as a roadmap or path to present and visualise what you can offer. Listing the various skills in terms of capability and complexity to any potential clients or employers.

Be an abilities Generalist

When considering whether you are a Generalist or a Specialist, it is best to not think of it in terms of what skills and abilities you have and what the level of depth is within each. Some skills will always lack depth, but they may still fall with a specialist skill tree, they simply augment different skills.

The benefit of the generalist is that they have several ancillary skills that support them in completing a task that their specialist skillset allows. These auxiliary skills are those that fall under soft skills and empathic skills, such as effective communication, collaboration, teamwork and so forth. These additional skills are what you should focus on when considering your generalist repertoire.

Having surface-level knowledge of various disciplines can only be strengthened with these skills. Therefore having breadth over depth has now become a competitive advantage for you. Being a good communicator and understanding just enough of the industry will allow you to better collaborate with teams in that industry and therefore be more effective overall.

The main ability of the Generalist then is to be able to understand just enough of a specialist to be able to move forward with them and/or to direct them down the right path. In essence, it is what a General does, they need not know what every unit and regiment does or can do in totality, but just enough so that they can develop informed strategies for combatting an enemy.

A specialist will have a singular focus and the generalist will have the flexibility of approach. The generalist has a mixed bag of experiences and examples of where they have solved a variety of problems. And being able to describe how these solutions were developed and arrived at, through the use of interpersonal skills, innovative ideas, out-of-the-box thinking, complex thinking and cross-disciplinary understanding is what makes them truly valuable.

The crux of the generalist’s abilities is therefore that they have the benefit of being able to come up with innovative ideas from various sources in specific fields. This is due to their breadth of knowledge, taking ideas from other places that specialists may not think to look into.

Visualising your Skill Tree

For many of us, myself included, it’s difficult to visualise the variety of skills we may have and how these translate into generalist or specialist skills and abilities. As such, I thought that it may be helpful if we gamify the process of discovering this somewhat.

The aim of the Skill Tree Visualisation exercise is that by the end you will have a piece of paper, or graphic representation, of a number of skill tree’s that have your various abilities, talents, skills, knowledge, interests and so on, on it. This will then give you an overview of what you are truly specialised in, which have some depth and which are simply surface level. This collection will be part of your generalist’s mixed bag.

To do this I would recommend doing it physically, but it can be done on a pc, it’s simply more fun to do it physically in my opinion.

First find an open space, with a clear wall, a desk, a block of sticky notes and a magic marker. These are your weapons of choice when creating a Skill Tree.

Take the block of sticky notes and write done as many abilities, talents, skills, expertise, knowledge points, interests, and so on, as you can think of. Limit them to only one per sticky note, as you will be ordering them into similar themes and groupings later. Having multiple on one sticky note will just confuse you and make it impossible to arrange later.

While you are doing this, don’t forget to ask family, friends, partners, colleagues and so forth for help and advice on what your skills, abilities and talents are. As not all may be obvious to you immediately.

Once you’ve exhausted everything you can think of, with the help of others, you will then start to arrange the various sticky notes on the open wall. Arrange them into similar themes and groups that fit together, initially just put them into single piles or groups, don’t try to make any linear or hierarchal sense out of them just yet.

Next, when you have your groups, see which of the points on the sticky notes is the most basic form of that theme and what is the most complex form of that grouping. Have the simplest one at the top and the most complex at the bottom, much like with the example of the Skill Tree earlier.

When you’ve done that, start going through the remaining sticky notes and order them in terms of simplicity to complexity between the starting and finishing sticky notes.  Don’t worry if some are of a similar level, this just means that there are two or more points to that tier of complexity that allows you to go from the simplest to the most complex point at the end of the tree.

At the end of the exercise, you should have a variety of skill trees that each represents a specialisation and shows the breadth of your generalist personality.

As you can see it looks somewhat like a flow-chart. These skill trees have varying forms and lengths and represent your collected knowledge.

Final Thoughts

Clients and employers are looking for individuals that have a depth of expertise and a breadth of skills and knowledge. When approaching a possible client or employer, you should see yourself as a brand and have a variation of that brand ready for whatever the situation.

In essence, there are no real complete generalists or complete specialists, every person has many interests and some take a higher priority than others, and have a greater font of knowledge because of those interests. Looking at you skill trees, some will be more elaborate and more complex than others, these are your specific specialisms, but you will likely have many and this represents your generalist skillset.

I’ll leave you with a final quote from David Epstein and his book Range (2019), which covers and discusses the advantages and disadvantages of generalists and specialists: “The more varied your training is, the better able you’ll be to apply your skills flexibly to situations you haven’t seen.”

As you can see it looks somewhat like a flow-chart. These skill trees have varying forms and lengths and represent your collected knowledge.

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Do check out the other posts on æ, and do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

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