Should You Be a Generalist or a Specialist?

generalist vs specialistAre you more of a specialist or a generalist? Plan your career accordingly.

Let’s assume we have four categories when it comes to monetizable skills and career expertise:

  • Low-skilled: Not good enough at anything.
  • Hyperspecialist: Great at one area of expertise.
  • Generalist: Good enough at several areas of expertise.
  • Comprehensivist: Great at several areas of expertise.

Everyone starts out as Low-skilled. Then progresses into either Hyperspecialist or Generalist over the first 5-10 years of their career, based on talent and disposition. Few people progress all the way into Comprehensivist.

In this article I will keep it practical and focus on the career aspect.

In my next article I will focus more on the big picture, the historical perspective, and how certain people–Comprehensivists–have had an outsized impact by creatively combining several skill sets.

The first 5-10 years of your career

The easy career path, at least initially, is to specialize.

Preferably in a fast-growing field.

That’s not to say you can’t start off as a generalist. You can. But it will be harder by default.

For the majority of people, this means: Learn a skill people are willing to pay for and spend your first couple of years specializing in that skill set to become great enough to command a premium.

But not everyone is cut out to be a Hyperspecialist and dedicate the entirety of their career to the same field.

Partly because they will find it boring and unfulfilling, and partly because that field might be out of demand in another 10-20 years from now. Hence, it would be more fun and probably wiser to diversify by learning another skill set after your first few years of specialization.

But while specialization is both easier and likely more lucrative during the first 5-10 years of your career, that changes eventually.

The people who have the top executive jobs, become self-employed, or start a business are usually Generalists.

This poses a bit of a dilemma:

The brain is most malleable (curiosity peaks) during age 20-30. As I explained in Breaking out of Homeostasis, there are cognitive benefits to learning as much as possible before this period ends. The dilemma is that your short-term incentives are at odds with your long-term incentives. It’s hard to delay gratification and if you are in debt you need to make money now.

As a practical example, say we have two people:

Person A gets a job at a prestigious company with a high entry-level salary. The money is great the first couple of years, but then the salary increases are marginal. Yet he’s working 80 hours a week, with little-to-no time left for learning.

Person B finds a compromise solution that prioritizes his learning, but has a lower income for the first couple of years of his career. Then he becomes self-employed or starts his own business.

Person B is likely to be better off in terms of happiness and financial security, over the rest of his life.

Career Overview

As mentioned, Specialization is the way to go for most people. And definitely pays better for the first 5-10 years.

But let’s think one step further.

-What if the average expert is not as specialized and skilled as he thinks, in order to have a competitive advantage in terms of career? That is to say, the person retains his job not necessarily due to being exceptionally skilled, but due to soft factors like loyalty, network and dependability.

-What if you specialize and spend 10 years to become the top 1% in your field, but then a new technology displaces your field?

-How sure are you that your area of expertise will remain in demand 20 years from now?

Given these questions, it seems like a safer approach to diversify and learn more than one monetizable skill, if given the chance.

The average Generalist is more future-proof than the average Specialist.

Serendipity favors the Generalist as well.

The Dangers of Overspecialization:

Unless you’re fortunate to go into a field like genetic engineering, programming, robotics, or something else that’ll be in demand for the foreseeable future, you risk plateauing after the first 10 years.

The dangers of overspecialization are most evident in academia, research and admin. It’s the 50-year old geezer who hasn’t learned much in the last decade (not keeping up) but perceives his or her own opinion and work as more important than it is, simply due to having spent a lot of time on it.

AKA: Sunk-Cost Fallacy and Commitment Bias.

Some other dangers of overspecialization are:

  • Myopia: Inability to the see the big picture.
  • MWAH: Trying to solve every problem using the skill they’re most comfortable with, rather than what is objectively the most effective approach: “To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
  • Opportunity Cost: The loss of X years whereby you could’ve learned one or multiple other skills after reaching 80-90% proficiency in your initial area of expertise.

Another Danger of Overspecialization is Lack of Empathy:

The tendency to be rude or non-understanding of other professions. Implying your work is difficult and valuable, but theirs is not.

What do salespeople do? Go to lunch all day? I do the hard work around here and they just leech! –> Well, how about you call up 20 people a day and ask them how their day is going, schedule meetings, and pitch people in a polite manner.

What do programmers do? Sit around and tap a keyboard? I could do that too! –> Well, how about you decide which programming language to use, how the code fits in with the system, and dealing with all the changes when management wants something new.

Generalists are less likely to suffer this tendency, because their ego is not bound up in knowing how to do just one thing.

Learn Transferable Skills:

“My experience in business helps me as an investor, and my investment experience has made me a better businessman.” –Warren Buffett

Transferable skills are useful both for generalists and specialists.

For specialists, it’s worth taking the time to consider what might be the top two complementary skills to your current area of expertise.

For generalists, it’s worth planning ahead and making a schedule of all the skills that would be useful or interesting to learn over the next couple of years.

Here are some transferable skills worth learning:

  • Communication: How to write a text, give a speech, or communicate effectively using some medium
  • Marketing & Sales: How to get customers and present your product well
  • Online stuff: How to set up a website, manage it, and interpret analytics
  • Design: How to make something simple to use and appealing to the eye
  • Psychology: How the mind works and how people are likely to react given certain circumstances
  • Management: How to run a team and decide what to delegate
  • Creativity: How to use writing, questioning, and various exercises to trigger your subconscious
  • Metacognition: Learning how to learn, being mindful, and perceiving your own behavior from an objective standpoint
  • DecisionMaking: How to outline options, set goals and prioritize. Important concepts include Betting, Expected Value, Opportunity Costs, Statistics, and Power Laws (80/20).

If you want to delve deeper, I recommend these two books:

The Personal MBA — by Josh Kaufman

How to Fail at Everything and Still Win — by Scott Adams

The Difference Between a Generalist and Jack-of-all-Trades:

Someone who is a jack-of-all-trades but master of none (or a dilettante) is by definition not a generalist. Because a generalist successfully combines his knowledge of multiple areas into a feasible career or business area in demand.

The reason I differentiate between specialists and generalists is because it’s a useful distinction. You could look at it like this:

SPECIALIST———AVERAGE PERSON——–GENERALIST

Most people will be in the middle.

They need to push themselves more toward either side.

Summary:

  • You have a natural bent towards either specialization or generalism. Figure it out and lean into it.
  • The best advice for most people is to gain an initial specialization and then figure out a way to become acquainted with several other fields.
  • Upsides to Generalism: You don’t have to make a premature decision about your career by the time you are 20-30 years old. You can use that time to learn broadly and follow your curiosity instead.
  • Downsides to Generalism: It makes for a harder first 5-10 years of your career because there is no obvious early career path for generalists. And it will be psychologically challenging to see your peers making a lot more money than you do, during the first couple of years of your career, knowing you could as well, but aren’t.
  • Upsides to Specialization: You’ll have an easier time finding a job and making good money the first 5-10 years of your career.
  • Downsides of Specialization: (1) Specializing in an area without a future, leading to negative opportunity cost. (2) Overspecialization, to the point you’re already 80% good, and improving the last 20% takes disproportionately long. (3) Tunnel vision, missing the bigger picture. (4) The psychology of overvaluing your work relative to others.
  • If you’re a specialist — in a good field — just stick to your stuff and keep up with advances. And if you’re ambitious, pick up a few transferable skills. Like better writing, speaking, sales, or project management.
  • If you’re a generalist – you need to practice synthesis. This might mean: (1) Read widely – history and biographies work for everyone, this provides material for your subconscious to draw connections, (2) practice creativity – everything from different brainstorming methods, to using scripted templates, to lateral thinking (3) make room for quiet thought. Take long walks or exercise.
  • Specialization is losing ground to Generalism because the value is shifting from memorization and codified skills into connecting the dots and mastering synthesis. The goal of “Machine Learning/Neural Networks/AI/Big Data” is to replicate and amplify the function of human synthesis. I doubt it will work on a large scale, but probably in a few specialized areas.

P.S:

Do you want to join a group of Homeostasis Breakers?

Reader Krish contacted me with the idea of hosting a select group:

I’ve made a group chat for folks who have read Ludvig’s book, ‘Breaking out of Homeostasis’, and are looking to better embody, implement, and practice the principles outlined in the book.

The group chat will be hosted on Telegram. Ideally there will be ~20 active members. If you want to join, I’d like to have a quick chat with you before I add you to the group. This is to weed out lurkers who might dampen the mood. You can DM me on Twitter or Telegram.

The core function of the group chat is to hold a space for sharing wins, struggles, and updates related to the various practices of ‘Homeostasis Breakers’. Briefly, that means:

(1) Acting with an understanding that many of the best things in life require us to fight against our instinctual, hedonistic, homeostatic comfort zone:

(2) Applying practices and principles in our daily lives for running towards discomfort, overcoming resistance, jumping out of negative feedback loops, and a general orientation towards challenging oneself for the sake of growing, taking on strenuous tasks and the path with more resistance as opposed to the path of least resistance.

-Krish

You can send Krish a DM on Twitter or Telegram if you want to join.

 

Comments

  1. Thanks, Ludvig. Very relatable. Just switched from a relatively specialist (but to be fair, still quite generalist) job, developing algorithms for greenhouse climate control; to a more generalist job as a researcher in circular greenhouse horticulture.

    I enjoyed my first job, and as you say, it’s hard to find something generalist to start – but as you may remember, I’ve always had broader interests than data science. Still, it was good to experience life in a real company – plus it brought my programming/machine learning skills to a professional level.

    My new job is a lot broader – involving writing, programming, speaking, hands-on experiments, and project management and acquisition. I like to think that although I’m a generalist, my speciality is to connect the different fields within circular horticulture. Not many can at the moment.

    • Sounds good. And like a great field to be in and have a head-start in for the next 10 years as it grows. With all the government-mandated ESG-money coming into fields like environmentally-friendly farming, I think it will be very helpful to know the field broadly, and to develop the knowledge of acquisitions within it.

  2. I think that the key thing to note is that (as you outline towards the end of the article) being a successful generalist is hard. In your early career, it requires putting in more time and sacrificing more than a specialist without getting the same results initially. E.g. if you want to be good in 2 different areas, to get to the point where you can be useful to the outside world, you need to know say 70% of what the specialist at each of these does which means putting 40% more work in total. If you want to be good in 3 areas you can maybe be at 60% in each discipline… (I am making up the numbers obviously but the point is that initially you need to work harder than a specialist and that going for more areas requires more work. Working harder can be replaced by having a longer ‘education window’ than the specialist and in the end you’ll probably need a combination of both)

    Average joe is a nice and curious guy who usually stays at 3-5% in each discipline (due to undecisiviness, lack of discipline and willingness to do the hard work).

    Also, I think that you could make a specialist vs. generalist differentiation within the disciplines as well. As a programmer, you could be good at one thing or at several, though here it’s probably easier to make a switch than in other fields. If you’re a statistician, that doesn’t mean that you know anything about geometry. If you specialize in public finances you probably don’t know a shit about financial markets. Medicine, law, engineering, are also extremely broad and general terms.

    But being a good generalist for sure pays off. Think of an a highly specialized researcher (whose knowledge might become irrelevant at some point, as you mention above) who also does programming (most of them don’t, or are very bad at it). That’s an instant back up option.

    • Hey Filip,
      All good points. The idea of “Researcher + Programming” seems accurate. Especially if working for a university or big institution where there’s a lot of simple improvements to be made.

  3. Wow, this article literally answers a question that has been coming up frequently in the past years

    I’m a generalist who is trying at the same time to expand the generalist knowledge/skillset and also to be getting serially specialized in the various different fields important to me in my generalist framework, however the issue is that economically it can be a really slow start because generalists blossom later on when they’ve become true comprehensivists and built a business or organization that doesn’t have a cookie-cutter business model but one that took a lot of advanced synthesized knowledge and skill to get off the ground.

    On the other hand, getting specialized is economically sensible short-term, however I don’t want to miss the 20-30 y/o window of highest neuroplasticity just for money by wasting time doing something that by itself probably has a much lower expected value than if I were to focus on building the wide generalist knowledge and synthesis skills.

    So it’s definitely a real conundrum. This is the first time I’ve seen someone talk about this, and of course it’s you Ludvig who spots this as an important topic and writes about it.

    Also as @Abgrund says above: “Those who have never specialized tend to overestimate how deeply their general knowledge reaches, because they’ve never seen depth.” – very good point. I think getting specialized in something more than in other things is important as training for the generalist, because you learn what a coherent system of understanding a specific field looks like in its (approximated) entirety. Without knowing this, you don’t understand the full anatomy of what the synthesis of those fields might look like, because you aren’t aware of all the inner meta-structures and relationships that you get when deeply exploring a field. In order to later hopefully build a coherent comprehensivist mental framework, it’s probably wise to first have experience with building a smaller mental framework on the level of a single field (I..e. to specialize) while at the same time keeping in mind that you want to connect the inputs and outputs of that field with the inputs and outputs of other fields later on.

    Example: imagine you’re a med student many decades ago, who wanted to be the first surgeon to successfully transplant a heart. In your classes about heart anatomy/physiology, you wouldn’t listen and focus the way other students do. You’d listen while simultaneously always thinking, how would this fact of the heart be accounted for during a heart transplant? I.e, you’re getting specialized but at the same time you’re already preparing yourself for a synthesis that doesn’t exist yet.

    Great article Ludvig.

    • Thanks Amir – great comment as well!

      “already preparing yourself for a synthesis that doesn’t exist yet.”

      –Well said. I think that encapsulates a LOT of what’s going on and will be in demand the coming 5-10 years, while things are changing so fast. Especially during the period when that change hasn’t to become a soundbite narrative (e.g “echo chambers”, “big data”, “social media”, “crypto”, “DeFi, “eCommerce”), or hasn’t been properly understood by mainstream society.

  4. Great post, as usual Ludvig.
    I certainly agree with the first 5-10 years. I hope you are right about the period after that, since I’m a generalist.
    And yes, it’s very frustrating to observe specialists ‘having it easy’ at the beginnig.
    It’s hard to start gaining momentum as a generalist. The idea is, the momentum will be massive, but later. Since I’m approaching 10th year in my new career (author), I can see some promising signs of that.

  5. I’m 29 so I’m very concerned when you say that 30 years old is when the brain stops being so malleable :(

    I don’t really know if I made good in my life. I have studied mechanical engineer, and I’m about to get my degree in a few months when I finish my thesis. I had chosen the specialist way in the moment I got into college. I know that being a specialist and not being good in other areas it isn’t that good. If I stay this way forever I would never leave the area. I need to know a little more of things… For example how to make good business.

    So… Taking the oportunity of a few fails in some courses I made myself some time to buy and sell products online. I have learned new things for the first years, then it was just about making good money. I had my first real 9 hours per day job for a year, and quitted in July. I learned a lot there, specially what I don’t want to be in life, but also some about how bad office organizations are.

    I would say I’d preffer the Generalist ways right now, but I’m not really sure. Maybe it’s because I can’t find a job that makes me use all my hyperspecialization capabilitties. But I like to know some of everything. It’s very attractive to have that capacity of synthesis that a generalist can have. And that is a lot more useful for anything in life. We are humans living out life after all…

    My main objective is to work in my own business, not working for somebody. I want a job only to learn. And make some clean money too, lol.

    P.S: I want to be in your new telegram group :)

  6. Concerning the Telegram group, is it meant to be more like a message board or more real time? I.e., is it time zone sensitive?

  7. Person C works menial jobs, barely survives, learns dozens of skills from necessity, and reads thousands of books on hundreds of subjects :D

    I’m not sure how important it is to have a high income in one’s twenties. Most financially ambitious young men seem to wind up with bad debt, a bad marriage, and children to support by their mid-thirties. A generalist can always find a way to make more money later, but austerity is a hard lesson to begin at forty.

    A complete lack of specialization, though, can lead to the dilettantism you mentioned. Those who have never specialized tend to overestimate how deeply their general knowledge reaches, because they’ve never seen depth. Specialization is also good mental exercise because it’s harder. I’ve known men who were well read and natively intelligent that had total shit for brains.

  8. I’m a programmer.

    I certainly could not call up 20 people every day.

    But I rest assured in my competence.

  9. Your blog and the 25 Minuter Podcast is the best public education, so keep it up please. I am always learning a new thing.

  10. I am a Hyperspecialist in a good field and I am paid well. But it does occasionally get boring.

  11. Wow great advice but I haven’t even started yet. I am only 22 and haven’t gotten my first job.

    If you had to say what areas to begin my career and specialise, what would you recommend?

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