Which is better: Specialist or Generalist?

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This has and will always be a debate. As there are arguments for both and each one is compelling. Today we are going to study each argument and by the end of the discussion you the reader will choose for yourself which side you resonate with the most.

To be a jack of all trades or a master of one.

Growing up in life we are taught to be specialists or to “major” in a particular subject or field. This is more so prevalent in the medical field where students go on to study and gain expertise in a subset of medicine.

Names that come to mind include Anesthesiology, Dermatology, Radiology, and so on. Even in Law, we have civil law, entertainment law, family law, and so on.

Many leave the school system with a good career runway due to specialization, however, there are many who find themselves “stuck” in whatever field they specialized in. So, there are strengths and weaknesses in the specialization.

When you specialize you become an expert in the field you study. People or clients will come to you based on your expertise, track record, and reputation. When someone is dealing with a very nuanced or specific issue they would need to go to a highly knowledgeable and competent advisor rather than a generalist due to the need for a more in-depth and thorough analysis of the situation. You wouldn’t go to an entertainment attorney for probating an estate, nor would go to a dentist for a torn ligament. Instead, those parties would refer you to a “specialist” that they know. We have more confidence or sense of assurance when we go to specialists to meet our needs in particular matters.

However, there is an inherent weakness with being a specialist. You are prone to being made redundant, outsourced, or becoming obsolete. Years ago, in the NBA being a point guard was a position that had basic duties or priorities. These included bringing the ball up the court, facilitating the team’s offense, passing, and assisting on plays. Today point guards must be exceptional ball handlers, able to run a team’s offense and create plays for their team members and themselves.

Just a decade ago some of the best point guards were Rajon Rondo, Steve Nash, Tony Parker, and so on. Today we see the list revamped, and many are exceptional scorers like Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, and so on. Today many point guards of the past have since retired or have been relegated to smaller roles on their teams as “game” has drastically changed. Teams cannot run offense strategies used just 5 years ago; they must be attuned for today’s standards. It’s very important that if you do specialize, it is in a field with a great long-term time horizon or prospects.

Companies are either acquiring, merging, or being conglomerates. For example, JP Morgan Chase is on a buying spree to bolster its services in Fintech as that is the trend for the future. Exxon Mobil, an oil giant that was once a business with a strong sustainable dividend yield, excellent credit rating, and prospects is now having to adapt to the pressure of clean energy and electric vehicles.

Now, let’s move to the generalist side of the aisle. Generalists have the argument of being adaptable, having general or some knowledge about everything.

They may not be exceptional at what they do, but they may be very well able to be good enough depending on the beholder. The generalist comes out the gate with that weakness easily seen. In a world that is increasingly becoming more competitive, faster, more demanding, a generalist could be perceived with lower value and could backfire for an individual or company. A company with too many moving parts or bolt on acquisitions can soon find itself hiring Investment Banks and law firms to aid in divestitures or restructuring due to stretching their resources thin or using too much leverage to grow market share in areas they lack direction or expertise in.

One recent example of this was AT&T’s divestiture of anime streaming company Crunchyroll to SONY, but even more, selling has been done to pay debts. When you don’t specialize you will have not only a weaker perception of a particular niche, but you’ll also have a false sense of competency which could lead you to make poorer decisions. However, there is a silver lining for the generalists’ group.

Despite being a master of none, you can adapt to change and be able to find which area you have the most affinity for much easier. Being able to see the entire picture you can then later focus on the point you are most attracted to. It is also important for an entrepreneur to have a generalist mindset. In the early stages of a business, it is important to create the M.V.P. Minimum Viable Product for the marketplace. In the beginning, specialization will kill a company as too many resources are used for one thing.

Being able to experiment and seeing how each part of business functions and moves and which products/services garner great market performance will help the business not only survive but thrive. Generalists can see things at a basic level which allows for more adept learning later if they choose to endeavor deeper. Companies today I believe have gone through cycles but in the end, they are always forced to be “generalists” for a time. Today companies are in cycles of either downsizing or trying to increase scale. Either to specialize or to become a multi-faceted player by expanding.

Each school of thought has its strengths and weaknesses. I don’t think one is right all the time. Sometimes you must go to the drawing board and ponder, “should I scale back and focus more here, or should I focus on growth and try something here.” In the end, I think some prudence and discretion should be used to find the right balance. Whether you are in school or a professional I think you should have something you have expertise in but have other areas that are a “student” of.

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