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Wearing Many Hats: Specialism Vs. Generalism

This article was written by in Best Of, Career and Work. 21 comments.

Ron Howard, famous mostly for playing Richie Cunningham on the television program Happy Days, is one of the film industry’s most successful directors and producers, having been involved with a long list of films. He directed, among others, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, The DaVinci Code, Frost/Nixon, and Angels and Demons. I happened to catch Ron and the rest of the Happy Days team on television this weekend, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the television show. The special aired several years ago and featured the actors and creative team talking about their experiences.

I’ve seen in previous interviews Ron Howard explain that he was always interested in directing. Garry Marshall, the creator of Happy Days, was a mentor to Ron, and first worked with Ron on an episode of Love, American Style. This episode, “Love and the Happy Days,” was a nostalgic look at the 1950s that wound up being a precursor to Garry Marshall’s Happy Days. Garry’s advice to Ron and to others involved with the show was to wear many hats.

Ron likely knew by this time that his hair was thinning, and Garry’s advice may have inspired Ron Howard’s trademark look of wearing hats to cover up the fact that his is follicularly challenged, but I believe the advice was more meant to encourage action beyond acting. With Ron’s goals of directing, Garry wanted the young actor to experience as many aspects of film and video production as possible.

Specialism vs. generalism

Specialism is the philosophy of finding one thing at which you might excel and nurturing your abilities in that skill, pursuing excellence, without nurturing other skills. This is how many people eventually succeed. For example, Mark Nuccio is the acting principal clarinetist for the New York Philharmonic. To be the principal clarinetist in this ensemble, you simply have to be the best (non-retired) clarinetist in the world. The New York Philharmonic is likely the most coveted ensemble for classical performers, and for a clarinetist aspiring to be the best in the world, the principal position in that ensemble is the apex.

It is likely that Mark has done not much outside of performing and practicing music on the clarinet since high school. Any time he spent on any other activity would be time not focused on the goal of being the best clarinetist in the world. The world needs such dedicated souls.

I see the “specialist” argument used to encourage career growth:

  • After 10,000 hours of practice, whether it is playing an instrument or coding in Java, according to author Malcolm Gladwell, you are likely an expert.
  • Experts are sought after for most higher-level positions in corporations.
  • Personal branding and marketing will be stronger when they involve a single message.

Specialism may well be the ideal for today’s modern, capitalist culture. I’d like to encourage some people, especially those who might have a strong aptitude for many different fields or have no particular driving passion for any career choice, to consider generalism. In Italy during the Renaissance, this was a highly regarded approach to knowledge and experience. Here is the concept of being a Renaissance man (or, today, woman):

It embodied the basic tenets of Renaissance humanism which considered humans empowered, limitless in their capacities for development, and led to the notion that people should embrace all knowledge and develop their capacities as fully as possible. Thus the gifted humans of the Renaissance sought to develop skills in all areas of knowledge, in physical development, in social accomplishments and in the arts.

Benjamin Franklin was a generalist. He is known as a printer, author, politician, political theorist, scientist, and inventor, among others. While he could have spent all his time focusing on any one of these activities, his historical importance relies on him being involved in activities that cross the spectrum. He, and most people who specialize, would not be considered the “best of the best” in any of these fields, but his broad skill set solidified his place in history.

The benefits of generalism are not confined to a chapter in a history book.

Generalism makes you more marketable to companies. I mentioned it is easier for specialists to market themselves — or, more precisely, for marketers to work with specialists, as a specialist would by definition not be very good at marketing themselves unless their specialty is marketing. Even though it is easier, it’s not better. Unless you have evidence that you are among the best in the world at your specialty, it’s quite possible that someone more accomplished at the one skill upon which you are relying is applying for that same job.

In an economy where unemployment is high, the supply of applicants is more than the demand. In this competitive environment, job seekers need to emphasize anything that makes them unique. When a company’s resources are low, they are more likely to be attracted to an prospective employee who can fill many roles. Someone with a variety of needed skills — someone who can take over the responsibilities of more than one function — is seen as a bargain for the salary.

Generalists make better business owners. Particularly during a start-up phase, a business owner needs to take care of various functions by herself. Particularly if the funds for outsourcing have not yet materialized, she needs to market the business, build the website, write up the business plan, secure funding, handle the accounting, negotiate with suppliers, research the market to stay ahead of the competition, advertise, provide customer service for the existing clients, and find new clients. It is not a surprise that, according to the Small Business Association, half of all new small businesses don’t survive four years, even after taking to account that some of these attempts may be an entrepreneur’s second or third start-up.

Specialists are often drawn to entrepreneurship although they lack varied skills necessary for success. Success rates do improve after initial failures, after business owners can determine which skills need refinement.

Generalism leads to a more fulfilling life. Like Mark Nuccio, I could have spent every waking moment practicing my clarinet. I would have become an excellent performer, perhaps even one of the 100 best in the world given the right opportunities and focus. It would still be very unlikely I would have become the principal clarinetist in a Big Five orchestra. Instead, I spent time performing on other instruments, such as trumpet, guitar, piano, and percussion. Experience on a variety of instruments would help me be a better music teacher.

Furthermore, I had interests outside of music performance. I’ve been an amateur computer programmer since I started playing with a Commodore VIC-20 when I was about eight years old. In college, I started a number of minors, including computer science and psychology, eventually settling on music business. Several years ago, when I decided to pursue a Master’s degree in business when the opportunity was almost completely free, I decided against specializing in either finance or accounting; I took enough classes across the business spectrum to get exposure to as much as possible.

More recently, I’ve taken my interest in photography to the next level by enrolling in classes to help improve these skills even though they are not connected to anything I’ve ever done professionally. I have a long way to go before I my photography skills are comparable with professional photographers; in fact, even some of my friends who have had no formal training but have a certain knack often show me how their skills exceed mine. Regardless of my progress relative to others, expanding my knowledge into other areas keeps my brain active and adds more dimension to my identity.

Wearing many hats, as Ron Howard has done after advice from Garry Marshall, will protect that active brain.

Photo credit: SashaW

Updated January 19, 2011 and originally published December 21, 2009.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Anonymous

Love this debate: I once framed it as the hammer vs. the swiss-army knife debate.
I think that your tilt towards generalism is right on: doing more different things is definitely the way to go, but eventually you have to pick a path and excel at that path, don’t you think? Ron Howard was a generalist, and I’m sure that made him the great director he is today. But now he’s definitely a specialist: one of the best directors in Hollywood.

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avatar 2 Anonymous

Good thought piece Flexo. We all start off as generalist, and then we specialize. Then we get boredd, and we revert back to being a generalist.

For money, I think specialists get the edge. But, with the caveat you have to be one of the best specialists!

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avatar 3 Anonymous

I think its also worth pointing out that in most cases being a specialist doesn’t require you to be THE best or even one of the few very best. You just need to be one of the top lets say 10-30% or so of people in the field to do really well. When times are really good being in the top half or even the top 70% might be good enough, but when times get tougher like now, if you are still in the top 20% you are likely to always still be in high demand. Now if you are the best or one of the best 1% or something like that, then you will excel even more.

But other than a business that is small and needs someone specifically to wear many hats, I would argue that the instances of people succeeding employment wise and career wise (not self employed wise), is a drastic tilt towards specialism. People who go to college and get a liberal arts degree or a general business degree without any speciality often end up managing a taco bell, or maybe doing something a little better but not even remotely related to what they thought they were going to school for because they didn’t get a degree targeted towards a specialized job.

As a Software development Manager I know that back in the hay days of the dot com explosion you could get a development job with a philosophy degree and experience having played with HTML. That was a complete market dislocation that drastically altered the typical case. Today, if you don’t have a specific computer degree and have excelled in it, there is no sense in applying, you won’t be considered.

Now you may very well enjoy your life more if you are well rounded. And you may be more likely to succeed at a self employed business too (although I would argue that is as much personality and natural ability as it is well rounded education/experience, and some luck), but I would not recommend it to someone just starting college asking me for advice of what to major in. I would advise them to spend time figuring out the following things:

1. What do you enjoy.
2. What are you good at.
3. What fields does the market currently reward financially.
4. What fields does the market currently have good demand for and good prospects for.

Find a place where a lot of those overlap and that you can be happy and then become as good at that as you can.

I don’t know many people who want to put “Jack of all trades, master of none.” on their resume. It is worth considering why that cliche exists.

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avatar 4 Luke Landes

Thanks for the interesting thoughts. In fact, I agree with the four things you advise people to consider — the intersection between enjoyment, skills, and marketability. It’s interesting that you think people with liberal arts degrees end up managing taco bells — I don’t believe that to be true at all. You’re just as likely to find a “specialist” there… when the real estate market first tanked, sub-prime mortgage sleazemen/salesman who were excellent at what they did realized they weren’t qualified for gainful employment elsewhere because they specialized at something that worked for a time.

Major league ball players often end up in financial trouble after they retire because they need to keep making money but don’t have marketable skills. Some learn how to coach, some learn how to broadcast… all new “hats” (helmets? caps?). Some end up getting in over their heads in the market and devastating their lives. Some manage fast food chains.

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avatar 5 Anonymous

Assuming we’re just talking career I have a few comments. I’m a specialist by education and in terms of early job titles but as my career has progressed I’ve had to take on the generalist stuff that come with more senior roles – the recruitment and business development and training and accounting and so on. I don’t think this is so rare. I agree the specialist probably makes more money out of the gate (and a more defined job path can be good for many people when finding your feet early on).

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avatar 6 Anonymous

I studied Information Technology. IT is a huge field ranging from self-taught computer builders ($20,000/year ?) to brilliant Google engineers ($100,000/year ?). Our professors and counselors encouraged us to be what they called “T shaped people”.

They wanted us to be good at many IT things, but to pick a small area of IT and become exceptional in that area. They called that type of education T shaped, saying that the shallow knowledge was the top of the T, and the deep knowledge in a smaller area is the deep vertical pole of the T.

Two years out of school, and so far it has served me well. I am an excellent Linux system administrator and extremely competitive for being out of school just 2 years. I am also good (but not excellent) at Windows administration, network administration, web development, Java programming, geo-information systems, database management and lots of other areas.

Instead of pitching myself as “Jack of all trades, master of none”, I can say “I am an expert at Linux administration, but I can help out as needed in lots of areas”.

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avatar 7 Anonymous

The T shape is a very good compromise. I think that makes a lot of sense actually. Usually we are not able to say I know everything about X and nothing about A-W. So knowing a little about about A-W and almost everything about X is a great way to look at it. I really like that description of the T shaped knowledge. I guess that would be Jack of many trades Master of one.

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avatar 8 Luke Landes

I agree that a “T” shaped skill-set could provide the best of both worlds.

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avatar 9 Anonymous

This is complete nonsense:
“In an economy where unemployment is high, there is more supply than demand.”

I am a specialist. I have spent the last (nearly) 15 years working on software that makes the internet work. I know more about how the internet functions than 99.9% of the rest of the world. My generalization in my profession is as broad as knowing both C++ and Javascript. It’s a fairly narrow level of generalization (no, I don’t know why your printer wont print, I definitely don’t know how to fix your refrigerator).

On my last pay statement, my year-to-date pay was $138,446. I have companies competing for me. I get recruiters regularly sending unsolicited messages asking if I’d be interested in joining their company. I had a friend and former co-worker who runs a business over for a Christmas party the other day, he told me that if I was ever considering leaving my current company, he hoped I’d consider going to his.

This is because *I’m good at internet software*.

You say “it’s quite possible that someone more accomplished at the one skill upon which you are relying is applying for that same job.” You’re right, I’m not the best person in the world at this sort of thing. There are people better than me, and there are people who have slightly different specializations than mine who are better at slightly different things. This doesn’t matter though — there are way more open positions for people who are good than there are good people. You don’t have to be the best in the world, being in the top 1% is still plenty good enough to have more than one job offer on the table.

If I’d only focused 1/4 as much as I have, and spent the other 3/4 of the time trying to be a printer, author, and clarinetist, this career would not be available to me.

This is bullcrap too:
“Generalism leads to a more fulfilling life.”

Because I’ve focused my career in one specific area doesn’t mean I’m unfulfilled otherwise. I do lots of other things, just not professionally. I’m not good enough at my hobbies to get paid for them, but that’s ok, because I have a fantastic career in internet software that pays quite well. Here’s a link to my flickr photo set page: I like to share that with people when they imply that my life must suck otherwise because my career doesn’t. Does it look like I’m having more or less fun than you? What about your readers, the one’s your discouraging from doing what I did, does it look like I’m having more or less fun than them?

And I’m only 28, you’re what, five years older than me? Imagine where I’ll be by then.

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avatar 10 Anonymous

Wow Tyler, you are even more blunt than me. :)

It would be interesting to find out the types of people who make up the vast majority of the unemployed. If I were to guess I would guess they were weighted more towards people who were generalists and weren’t able to provide specific benefits to their employer, or specialists who just weren’t very good at their specialty, or people who couldn’t decide what to do and tried different things (kind of a different kind of a generalist). Some examples include mortgage brokers and real estate agents. I know lots of people who thought they could just jump to one of these jobs in this last decade because there was money to be made there. These are fluff jobs. There is very little skill required to do them. You just need a little personality and some basic job knowledge. It’s not a very specialist kind of job. And I know there are a lot less people employed doing them now than there were 5 years ago.

It seems to me good specialists are less likely to get laid off.

Now as a caveat to that. You better be good. Because if you are a specialists and you only got hired because of a supply shortage which goes away, then you are kind of screwed because there is never a demand for extra specialists who aren’t very good. A generalist does have a better opportunity to find other non-related work.

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avatar 11 Luke Landes

I think that caveat is one of the most important things about being a specialist. To answer Tyler’s question, I’m not discouraging people from being specialists, I’m fighting the discouragement I see towards generalists. I think if you’re good enough to be a great specialist, then it’s a good option. You can certainly have a fulfilling life as a specialist. I didn’t say you couldn’t. You can make lots of money too, if that’s your goal. I could have gone into computer programming. I’ve been doing it at different levels since I was eight, and at twelve or thirteen I had the cognitive capacity to learn programming at a level beyond the Ivy League students who participated in the same psych study I did.

I see computer programming specialists where I work and there’s no way I’d take their job, even for $140,000 a year. The computer programmers I work with are so specialized, they have problems communicating with operational staff, have weak or non-existent management skills, and exhibit hardly any common sense when dealing with projects.

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avatar 12 Anonymous

I think I’m more of a generalist. I like so many different things it’s hard to narrow it down to just one!

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avatar 13 Anonymous

Another question. Are you a generalist because you’re not good enough to be a specialist? hmmmm.

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avatar 14 Anonymous

So what? If you’re a generalist and you’re good at that, why not? There are many specialists who are not good enough to be a generalist. Different people work in different ways, and being able to learn and become competent at many skills *is a skill*

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avatar 15 Anonymous

Obviously whether specialization or generalization rules depends on whether one wants to be an employee or an employer. The vote is most likely completely determined by which camp one falls into / which level of management.

Now, if I am to venture a guess on who’s unemployed or not being paid very well compared to the amount of effort they put in I would guess on them being specialized in a sector that is no longer growing and their reluctance to transfer to a different field. Because, when it comes down to it, they do not know a whole lot outside their field that can’t done by anyone else -> the only jobs that are available are walmart greeter, house cleaning, …

Supply and demand completely determine pay levels. Specialization does result in a increased volatility but if the tide is rising, that is, field is growing, this is not easily seen. If a field is growing, supply is likely to be lagging demand and high prices obtain. If supply is abundant (as it will be aroudn the peak and a few decades after), you will find people that more more intelligent and more hardworking than 99% of the rest of the population competing for what has now become average wages exactly as a result of their specialization and their hope that they will be the one to get the promotion rather than the one whose performance was 0.1% worse.

This is called a social trap and you can smell one every time business leaders say there is a shortage of X people.

Fulfillment is a very personal dependence. It can come from the job or from the activities that are likely allowed by the job (buying stuff and paying activity fees). The problem arises mostly if specialists become used to getting remuneratively fulfilled from their jobs and they suddenly find them outcompeted. Here a generalist would have advantages. For instance, it would be easier for a manager to jump sector, say from health care industry to the auto industry; for a specialist, it would be almost impossible to go from doing gram tests to programming a lathe without starting from scratch.

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avatar 16 Anonymous

Think about every different job that is available in the world. What percentage requires a specialist? What percentage requires a generalist? I can’t help but imagine the generalist for outweigh the specialists. But the only thing that really matters to you is the job you want or accept.

I’ve been both and to some extent continue to fill both roles. With some customers I am a specialist and I relish the role. It is rewarding to know that less than a dozen people in the country can provide what you provide. But if that was all I did, personally, I’d lose my mind. I genuinely appreciate the variety in life and work.

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avatar 17 Anonymous

I would expect the opposite is true.

If I listed job titles, I would expect that most would be specialists. Certainly most well paying jobs would be.

Clearly self employed and business execs can be very high paying and would be generalists. Sales and marketing professionals are most likely generalists.

But when you think about all the jobs in the tech industry, in finance, in medicine, in law, these are almost all specialists and most pay pretty well too, some extremely well.

It might just be people see the world from their perch and their inclination and think it mostly leans that way. Maybe its more equally balanced but we can’t see the other side of the world from our perch so we think its small????

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avatar 18 Anonymous

And we’re all forgetting athletes and other performers who are also very well-paid specialists.

The problem with specialization is that, in many cases, one small problem wipes you out, and the repetitive stresses of these jobs often lead to said small problem.

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avatar 19 Anonymous

@Apex – I certainly don’t know for fact, I just imagine because… Over half of our nations working population are employed by small business. In these cases employees are often expected to be flexible.
A significant portion of our population are also employed by big business. While there are many employees that are in a specialist career path, my limited exposure working at only one Fortune 100 company definitely shows the majority of our employees must be open to working in a variety of positions throughout their career path.

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avatar 20 Anonymous

So another interesting take would be what qualifies one as a specialist or a generalist.

It seems some people are arguing that a person is a generalist if they have done more than one job or switched jobs. I see that a little differently.

I don’t see a specialist as a person who has only done or can only do 1 thing in their life without signifcant and extended new specialized training. Rather I see a specialist as a person who while likely trained or experience in a particular area of expertise will likely be exposed to other things and picks up some other skills or shows other talents and often gets moved or promoted into other roles. I have had this happen in may career moving from technical development to technical management. However I still see that as a specialist. I still need my very specialized technical knowledge to do my management job as a manager of technical projects and people and I see my role as a specialized role as well even though it is a little more generalized than a pure 100% technical person.

Very few people can be truly a 100% generalist or a 100% specialist, although the 100% specialist does exist and they are sometimes a frightening species. :) Most people have to blur the lines a little at some point, but I don’t see having changed roles or having done a few different things in a career path is being a kind of generalist. I see that as an evolving specialist. Whereas to me a true generalist is almost never the subject matter expert on a topic and usually performing multiple tasks on a regular basis or spending only a little time on each subject area, enough to get some proficiency in it and then moving on to the next area to get broad knowledge.

To me a generalist is a person who as the author has alluded to, is often wearing many hats at one time and may not be your go to guy on any of those things but is a very valuable resource for their ability to see the big picture and pull it all together.

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avatar 21 Anonymous

This is kind of a silly argument. I think the biggest deciding factor of success is if you are good at what you do. It matters little if you are a really good multi-tasker who can get lots of different things accomplished OR if you are really good at one particular task.

If I had to pick, I would say it is better to be a specialist. I commented previously in the post referenced in the 1st comment re: swiss army knife or a hammer. My question was: If you have (or want to have) a successful business, are you going to compete better with a whole bunch of swiss army knives or a hammer, a drill, a screwdriver, etc.? I don’t own or run a business BUT I do do some home renovations. My toolbox does not have 55 different swiss army knives it it…

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