Friday, February 5, 2010

Should You Be a Specialist or a Generalist?

I recently wrote a post on a similar topic, but your comments on it and further reflection have motivated me to write this second one.

Many people find it fun to be a jack of all trades a master of none. I'm certainly guilty of that: I've enjoyed being a pianist, medical researcher, teacher, school psychologist, professor, rose hybridizer, college counselor, career counselor, actor, director, and writer of everything from columns to plays to movies to proposals for reinventing education. Currently, my learning time is divided among career counseling, men's issues, increasing higher education's accountability, playwriting, theatre management, the life well-led, libertarianism, futurism, life extension, and encouraging an honest national conversation about race.

It's particularly tempting for intelligent people to dabble widely because they usually can progress from neophyte to good quickly. Alas, it typically takes a lot longer to go from good to great. And as Malcolm Gladwell reported in his book, Outliers, most significant accomplishers went deep for decades. I doubt that the person who will cure cancer will have dabbled at it.

And intelligent people can't rationalize, "Aww, even if I stayed at it for 50 years, I'm not smart enough to accomplish much." Intelligent people could.

So should we force ourselves to take the time to become a real expert at something? Answering that first requires us to address this core question: To live the life well-led,where should we strive to be on the continuum between hedonism and productivity/altruism?

Can we take the easy route and simply say it's a matter of personal choice? I don't think so. If everyone just pursued hedonism, most time would be spent eating, having sex, watching movies, hiking, etc. Soon, there'd be little food, health care, etc. Our sewers would never get repaired. In contrast, if everyone spent maximum time on productivity, we'd have more medical discoveries, better, less-expensive food, etc.

So I invite you (and me too) to take a look at the content areas in which you have some expertise. Is there one into which you feel you should go deeper? It doesn't have to be monumental--you could decide to become the go-to person on pricing widgets. After all, if you price a widget right, more people will buy it and hence benefit from it while ensuring that the widget company's employees have jobs.

Who knows? You may find that going deep gets you passionate about the field, even if it's mundane. I know people who, having become expert at some thing, became passionate about such prosaic products as accordion doors and tractor dashboards. It feels good to become an expert on something, almost no matter what it is. And going deep is likely to abet your career. Except at the very top of a field (for example, CEO), society rewards specialists, not generalists.

Of course, there's a downside of going deep: excessive narrowness. For example, we all know technical experts who are locked into lower-level jobs because they lack the leadership skills and organizational savvy to move up. Also, many such geeks lack the interpersonal skills to be good friends, lovers, and parents. But it seems wiser to start by becoming an expert in something and then learning those other skills than to start by dabbling in them all.

Candidly, I don't think I have the discipline to forgo my continuing dilettantism in favor of going deeper into one thing, worthy though that might be. For example, I believe I could make a bigger contribution by becoming truly expert in the career coaching of physicians, a niche of mine. But how about you, dear reader? Is there something into which you want to go deeper?


Anonymous said...

One of the reasons I've always enjoyed your writings and radio show are BECAUSE you have such a wide range of knowledge.

I think this post is great because it reminds us that specializing is where it's really at, yet it allows that certain people are always going to have a wide range of interests, fortunately or unfortunately.

When I was in my twenties, I tried to give up all my hobbies and side interests for about 5 years and really live, breath, eat, and sleep just one career with laser focus. I found myself depressed. The outside interest and hobbies (most of which I'm a generalist at) are part of what make life worth living for me. So it's easier said than done.

Still, the advice is good to consider what one could become more knowledge/skilled in, rather than always looking for new areas to "dabble". In my case, whenever I get a new interest, I often ask myself if I really have the time to put into it. This avoids me over-committing my time to things I am only mildly interested in, or won't ever achieve enough mastery at to eventually put on a bio or resume.

e said...

I personally would rather be a specialist, albeit one who draws from other, related areas for inspiration. My role models are people like Charles Darwin, Fred Astaire, and other specialists.

That said, self discipline is a constant struggle for me. I honestly think being in school for so long made self discipline harder than it had to be, because I knew I'd get an A whether I put in the time or not. I've had to unschool myself, and it hasn't been easy.

Marty Nemko said...

E, school absolutely causes procrastination and lack of discipline, especially among the bright. Grade inflation, caused by an attempt to be kind, and ever dumber teachers (in previous generations, the brightest women saw teaching as the highest-status position to which they could reasonably aspire) teaches students they can get away with brinksmanship and other sorts of half-hearted efforts.

Greg said...

Being a "jack of all trades" to me shows a lack of willingness, or maybe ability, to really develop a depth of knowledge. Being in a rotational training program early in my career at GE, I saw plenty of co-workers who were happy to skim by on each assignment, knowing that they were moving on to a new one shortly. This created a habit of shallowness, which for many has come back to haunt them later in their career.

It's great to be agile, but you build credibility and your career by having a history of successes. Such successes are more easily achieved when you can be deep, at least for short while, in the skills required to solve challenging problems in your current role.

E said...

Dr. Nemko,

Mark Cuban actually posted a similar topic and (to summarize) his advice to whether a 20 something year old should focus is (this words are next)
"Being focused at 21 is way over rated. Now is the time to screw up, try as many different things as you can and just maybe figure things out.
The thing you do need to do is learn. Learn accounting. Learn finance. Learn statistics. Learn as much as you can about business. Read biographies about business people. You dont have to focus on 1 thing, but you have to create a base of knowledge so you are ready when its time.
I'm curious, Dr. Nemko, do you agree with this?
Best wishes to you.

Marty Nemko said...

Very bright people can succeed by going deep for a while in one thing, then going deep in something else (ideally related), then going deep in something else that's related.

More average folks would be wise to carefully choose 1 thing to go deep in and stay there longer.

A said...

How do you choose what to go deep into? I live in Michigan, and I see people with years and years of automotive expertise desperately looking for jobs. I can say with certainty that specialization is not paying off for them. Especially when you consider the extra years of schooling often required.