Generalists and Specialists

In recent years, there have been discussions – both online and offline – that although specialists are often having the edge over generalists, societal trends in contemporary times have strong indicators to show that luck or rather, the current movement of the times, greatly favours the generalists.

Before elaborating further, it might be good to define what “specialists” and “generalists” mean. Within the context of this writing, the term “specialist” refers to individuals who have developed and possess a specialty, which they have used it to carve out a career. Besides some exceptions, some common careers for specialists include accounting, lawyers, bankers, business consultants etc.

“Generalists”, on the other hand, refer to individuals who seem to have an innate knack for tasting the varieties and spice of life and have the proclivity to develop width instead of depth when it comes to knowledge, wisdom and insights. Some common professions that most generalists tend to pursue include entrepreneurs, teachers, professors, writers etc.

As can be observed, the professions that specialists are in often gives them a huge paycheck while the occupations that generalists belong to often belong to the freelance category where the payoffs of satisfying intrinsic interests are often much greater than the monetary remunerations (which provides extrinsic motivation) that are brought in.

It almost seems that the business world is a mold possibly created by specialists for specialists. Look at the professions of generalists: Entrepreneurs are creators of business, not part of an existing business model or structure.  Teachers and professors, while prestigious, remain within the academic domain (thereby giving birth to the argument that students nurtured by the academia often do not fit into the business world). As for writers, their creativity and writing style are often greatly admired – but usually not in the business world (elaborate and detailed emails are often frowned on or scorned upon in corporate settings, where brevity is highly valued.  The better writers usually cannot survive on brevity as it drastically diminishes their creativity).

Hence, generalists are often perceived as misfits in the business world. This may sound harsh but the realities of things do reflect the fact that – more often than not – generalists do not fit well into corporate settings (or corporate cultures). In addition, they often hold their own points of views, and they like to create things that includes abstract thoughts, tangible products or simply, an idea.

But is that really so? That generalists are doomed to fail in the corporate world?

Of course not. Generalists just need a different environment to thrive. That’s all. As the pace of life increases and more importantly, as the workplaces change, it almost becomes apparent that generalists are the new princes and princesses who will save the day.

How is this so?

Let’s look at some of the trends that greatly favour the generalists:

Climbing the corporate ladder is getting harder than ever before:

With increasing mergers and acquisitions as well as retrenchments, it is getting more challenging to make the steep ascent up the rungs of the corporate ladder. Let’s face it. With an increase in work pace and thinner bonuses, fewer bosses have the capability to groom all if not most young and aspiring corporate executives. The bosses themselves are also facing the risk of retrenchments. Specialists are most probably going to have a hard time in this time and age as they require to acquire  experiences in a specific field by staying in an organisation long enough for them to carve out a niche for themselves. However, like the stock market, the rise and fall of industry sectors are moving at a pace faster than ever before. While we are only looking at the increased pace of organisations as they mature from a young start-up to an established firm during the earlier years, we now have to consider the additional, external layer of change that involves industries and professions. Coupled with the fast manpower movements in modern organisations, it make it almost impossible for specialists to carve out a niche for themselves or for the more established, to maintain strong and firm foothold on their reign. Generalists, on the other hand, have an edge in this aspect. What is considered “job-hopping” by specialists are often regarded as “speedy exposure to the variety of professions in a journey to learn and adopt a cross-disciplinary approach to life” by the generalists. To the generalists, variety is the spice of life. And in their younger days, the generalist tends to favour freedom and flexibility in their personal lives over a bigger paycheck. This mindset seldom changes over the long term as well. Some of them will become entrepreneurs after a few years in the work force, having found a passion in creating and starting an enterprise as well as  creating their own rules, tasting and relishing freedom as opposed to following others.  On the whole generalists are more suited for entrepreneurship because of their strong tendency to explore a larger scope of domain over the specialists. And entrepreneurship not only requires this quality – it demands it.

Required skill sets of a corporate employee are broadening:

While it remains as a fact that being specialised is essential for some professions, there is an increasing number of professions which are becoming more all-encompassing when it comes to the required skill sets. Just consider customer service. While it used to be merely handling face-to-face and answering telephone enquiries, most customer executives are now expected to pen and respond to emails, receive faxes, do research, attend courses, be adept in anger management, improve written and speaking skills, go for motivational courses and many more. With such a lateral expansion in terms of professional expertise, one can observe that more and more jobs are swinging in favour of generalists, as opposed to specialists. The generalist’s strong curiosity and knack for picking up new skills will be strengthened in such economic climate change while that of the specialists will be greatly weakened due to their proclivity to develop depth in a specialised field with a focus of singularity rather than forging a learning mindset of a widened spectrum. Specialist may pursue an alternative route of developing another specialised field in demand, which takes time and which means that they would have to start all over again. Nevertheless, this choice is feasible should the specialists choose to be adaptable.

Emphasis is now placed on creativity and innovation:

While the economy has always placed focus on rationality, logic and reason when it comes to business, the New Age era has arrived and something else is needed, which is creativity and innovation. It’s interesting to note that creativity and logic do not always go well together. And it will be good to add that they are – more often than not – mutually exclusive.  This probably explains why most businessmen are not ad guys and why most creatives are not businessmen. It seems that the required skill sets stem from different parts of the brain. While it’s commonly said that women are from Venus while men are from Mars, it might be fair to say that businessman are from Pluto while the creatives are from Jupiter. The (business) world is moving from a linear assembly line with a hierarchical structure to a lateral expansion whereby designations and titles are pretty much diminished and underrated, whereas the ability to think “out of a box” is greatly emphasised. In the past, during the times of Picasso and Michaelangelo, creativity has always been the revered quality that pushes mankind forward, and it should always have been. However, industrialisation and technology advancement change all that, turning the human geniuses of humans into stagnated landscapes of machinery. We are now just returning to where we belong – the artistic realm of the artists which science often couldn’t touch and hence couldn’t understand. Architecture is one example of a unique blend of art and science. Engineering and IT firms are adopting the hybrid of an art-science approach as well. Let’s hope that all go well such that both the skills of the specialists and generalists can be put to good use. Nevertheless, the cold metallic feel of the sciences will probably never understand the imaginary realm and boundless expanses of the arts.

Having said the above, I would still suggest and encourage that generalists develop some niche areas of specialties by leveraging on their strengths.

Ultimately, the greatest achievements of mankind are often hinged on the depth of knowledge in various professional fields where one is able to adopt a cross-disciplinary approach and integate various components into one cohesive whole.

As the saying goes, “A Jack of all trades is a master of none.”


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