The Rise of the Generalist Part II: The Specialist’s Survival Guide

As a specialist your job security is vulnerable to market forces and technological progress. The next big innovation will make it possible for a less skilled person to perform the same tasks as you do now. When this happens you’ll be given a choice between a pay cut or the door. If you choose the pay cut, you’ll be likely be working with (or for) people who have less skill in your area than you do.

In order to avoid this fate, you must know both the dangers of overspecialization as well as the guidelines for surviving in a world where the advantages of being a specialist are becoming increasingly less apparent.

The Dangers of Overspecialization

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a specialist, but you should be aware of the potential pitfalls of overspecialization:

  • The Law of Diminishing Returns
  • A Dead-End Career

The Law of Diminishing Returns

The amount of time you spend developing your skills is rarely proportionate to the benefits you receive from those skills. When developing your expertise in an area, it’s important to be aware of the Law of Diminishing Returns. The lion share of the benefit you get from learning something new will most likely come from the first year or two of study. After that, the benefits become much less apparent.

Take the Japanese language for example. Although there might be more than 50,000+ characters in a modern Japanese dictionary, most native speakers learn only about 2,000 of them. In fact, most foreign visitors to Japan can learn just 500 characters and will never have a problem reading menus, ingredients on food labels, signs in the subway station and even some comic books. Unless you want to go to law school in a Japanese university or read obscure Japanese novels in the original language, there isn’t much sense to learning more than those 500 most common characters. After a certain point, you have to exert a tremendous amount of effort just to gain another level of proficiency. Before you decide to do so, you better make damn sure that it’s worth your time.

When it comes to learning languages, most are content to learn just enough to communicate comfortably with native speakers. Spending years learning all that you can possibly learn about a language isn’t an efficient use of most people’s time. When it comes to job skills however, it’s surprising how many people lose sight of this bit of common sense.

A high level of skill may be something to strive for if you’re a professional artist or performer, but if you’re a web developer or a bond market analyst chances are that the only ones who’ll be able to recognize your level of expertise are a handful of people, and certainly not those who pay your salary.

Before you devote time to develop your skills past a basic level of competency, ask yourself your real motivations for doing so. Are you doing it so that you can think of yourself as a “bigger expert” than your peers, or are you doing it to increase your ability to contribute value to others? If your thirst for knowledge is motivated by personal pride rather than a desire to make a contribution, it’s likely that you’re spending more time developing your skills than you need to. If that’s the case, consider rethinking your priorities and widening your focus a bit.

A Dead-End Career

Although HR recruiting managers are always looking for specialists, for some reason there are very few specialists who make it to top management positions. In fact, most corporate professionals at the VP level and above have generalist resumes. The reason these people are chosen for the top jobs are not only due to their leadership skills, but because their generalist background gives them a more holistic vision about how business works. They’re able to see the big picture and take all angles into consideration before making a decision.

Furthermore, if you specialize in one area too much, chances are you’ll become too valuable to your company as a staff member to be promoted to management level. Your skills, in essence, will become your cage. In my years as a headhunter I’ve met plenty of specialists who’ve become trapped in the same job for 10 or even 20 years. Because their skills are so valuable at a certain level, promoting them would be out of the question.

Surviving as a Specialist

To avert the potential dangers of overspecialization, consider the following survival tips:

  • Develop your “Inner Resume”
  • Widen your focus
  • Ask yourself why you’ve decided to specialize

Develop your “Inner Resume”

Don’t limit your focus to developing marketable job skills. Make sure that you develop your “inner resume” as well. Take time to develop qualities of leadership, creativity, charisma, and integrity. Although developing these qualities don’t have an immediate impact on your career, the cumulative effect over time can be extraordinary.

Widen your focus

Develop skills in other disciplines and see how the insights you gain from learning something in a completely different field can be applied to your area of specialization. Oftentimes ideas which are old hat in one area can be the inspiration behind incredible breakthroughs in others.

Leonardo Da Vinci, for example, took advantage of his knowledge of human anatomy to paint portraits that were incredibly realistic. Indeed, many of history’s polymaths, the geniuses who were able to achieve breakthroughs in several very different fields, did so because they were able to see the connections between those fields. If you’re an expert at what you do, and you encounter a problem that you can’t solve, perhaps the answer lies not studying the obscure minutiae of your own field, but in trying your hand at something completely different.

Ask yourself why you’ve decided to specialize

Some people decide to specialize simply for the joy that comes from delving deeper and deeper into a particular area of expertise. If that’s your reason for being a specialist, then by all means, continue. If you’re specializing simply to get a better job, or because you want to make sure that you’re the best expert among experts, then it might be a good idea to reassess your priorities. You shouldn’t become a specialist just for the sake of becoming a specialist. Don’t pursue expertise. Instead, devote yourself singlemindedly to whatever ignites your passion. If you do this, expertise will naturally ensue.

What about you? How has your level of expertise (or lack thereof) helped or hindered you in your career? Any other tips for succeeding as a specialist? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Stay tuned for Part III of this series: How To Thrive as a Generalist. You can subscribe to this blog so that you can read it as soon as I publish it. Till then!

Photo by: IK’s World Trip

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  • Hi Kenji.

    This is excellent advice. You are basically applying the Pareto principle to skills. With the rapidly changing world we live in I think the best skill to be expert in is the skill of being flexible and as you say being a generalist. When I was a kid I wanted to be a polymath, but I ended up as very much a specialist. I’m trying to broaden my interests and skills once again.
    .-= Stephen – Rat Race Trap´s last blog ..Unconscious Decision Making =-.

  • Kenji

    Welcome Stephen, thanks for commenting.

    I think developing the skill of being flexible is an excellent idea. More than ever, we have to learn be ready to change at a moment’s notice. Most people are conditioned to do just the opposite. I think we all have it within us to be polymaths if we can break down the barriers that we erect between disciplines.

  • bob

    Interesting post. On the other hand, would you say are the dangers of overgeneralizing in your career?

  • It’s amazing how history is coming full circle how we have gone from multi-skilled focused to very specialized back to emphasizing multiple skills.
    I think it’s a good thing, and by broadening one’s base one can stimulate the mind and overcome boredom.
    .-= Gordie – Lifestyle Design For You´s last blog ..How Self-confidence Can Strengthen Your Lifestyle Design And Personal Development. =-.

  • Kenji

    @Bob

    You make an excellent point. There are plenty of dangers to overgeneralizing as well. I’ll be covering those in my next article “How to Thrive as a Generalist.” I believe one of the main dangers of overgeneralizing is a lack of focus and direction.

  • Kenji

    @Gordie

    I hear you. I think it’s a very good thing. The future is bound to be fun but also damn scary. Let’s just hope we can survive the transition with as few scars as possible.

  • Hey Kenji,

    Sorry I haven’t been here for a while. This post really caught my attention. I’ve been running across many people who tell me a similar thing. In the LA area in particular there are people who have careers in Aerospace, and when they get laid off it’s really hard for them because they are so specialized in what they do.
    .-= Srinivas Rao´s last blog ..Interviews with up and coming Bloggers: Rich DeMatteo =-.

  • bob

    I would say that although not all specialists can become generalists, to be an employable generalist, you have to have already demonstrated compentency as a specialist. Just saying “I will be a generalist” and expecting to be taken seriously in the market is shortsighted IMHO. Since a generalist can not produce results hands-on as effectively as a specialist, the generalist’s only real function could be to lead or manage the specialist(s). However if the generalist has never been a specialist related to the relevant task, he/she lacks credibility with the specialist(s) and is in capable of properly leading and directing.

  • Kenji

    @Srinivas

    Good to see you here again.

    It’s unfortunate, but we’re probably going to be seeing a lot more of that. We’ve been conditioned through our education system to believe an obsolete paradigm that the sure path to success is to know more and more about less and less. At best, it has become the sure path to mediocrity. At worst, it’s the path to failure.

    @Bob

    I think you make a good point. Expertise IS important in order to become employable. We must show competence in skill in one area in order to earn the kind of credibility that would make us eligible for a management position. I don’t see why we can’t, however, gain expertise in several different fields. With corporations laying off more and more people we’re going to see a lot more free agents out there, people who work for themselves or in small teams of 5 to 10 people. As free agents, it’s important to be flexible and have competent skills in several different fields.

  • bob

    Let’s not confuse expertise with basic knowledge. Expertise = the ability of an expert. To be an expert in anything (ergo gain expertise) takes years of hard work. How many years? That is up to your definition of expert. But with some exceptions, working in a competitive market requires you to have more than just basic knowledge. It requires you to be an expert in something. The reason we can’t gain expertise in several different fields is because it takes too long.

    On the otherhand, having a flexible attitude about life and a changing economy can be enjoyed by both generalists and specialist, IMHO.

    Having an unneeded skill never disqualifies you from a position.
    Not having a needed skill does.

  • I have fully understood your wisdom here. In fact I fell victim of overspecialization. Being in the IT profession, I have focused my time and energy on perfecting my skill, but in the end it has brought me nothing but stagnancy. Good thing I have evolved and have search other areas where I can make a contribution. Hence, I have created my own blogsite.

    The survival tips you have mentioned has changed my path. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Kenji

    @Bob
    First of all I’d like to thank you for your ideas, they’ve helped me refine my thinking about the subject.

    For the most part, I agree with you. Not having a needed skill does disqualify you from a position. Not being a specialist will make it very difficult to get a job.

    But then why do you have to get a job? It is my firm belief that most people can have a rewarding career working for themselves or in a committed team of like-minded individuals. In these situations creativity is of much higher value than expertise. You could, for example have the most beautifully coded bug free web application the world has ever seen, but if the idea behind the application itself is unoriginal, the application is worthless. On the other hand, a web application coded by amateurs who have a great idea will be much more successful, despite the bugs. When the web application makes money, they can outsource the experts later to clean up the code.

    @Walter
    Glad to see these tips were of some help ๐Ÿ™‚ Best of luck in your new pursuits.

  • bob

    Sure, good ideas are important but what happens after that is just as important. Without a solid business plan you are basically The Underpants Gnomes in Southpark.

    Phase 1: Collect Underpants
    Phase 2: ?
    Phase 3: Profit

  • Kenji

    @Bob

    I loved that episode! Gotta go see it again. I agree with you on the business plan bit. Poor underpants gnomes, when will they ever learn!

  • I think that it’s extremely useful to be a generalist and then aim to specialize in some niches ‘on demand’. I prefer to invest my time learning how to specialize faster than the average so I can adapt to more opportunities.
    .-= Oscar – freestyle mind´s last blog ..Interview With Dragos Roua =-.

  • Being Jack-of-all-trades just hurt me in my first 20 years of life. I believe that a man should have his specialty, become real good at it. Make a living off of it and then expand himself. Eventually, he will become jack-of-all-trades. But having a specialty and being the best at it teaches you some life lessons that only tipping your fingers into it wont! That is the biggest reason I think specialty is good. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Both parts of this topic are real interesting and can cause discussion. Thank you for them! I think I will be visiting this blog more ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Cheers
    Adrijus Guscia
    .-= Adrijus Guscia´s last blog ..20 Great Quotes About Business and Life =-.

  • Kenji

    @Oscar

    Welcome!

    I agree. Specializing on demand is an extremely effective practice. It’s important to know just how much skill we need to get something done. Thanks for your insight.

    @Adrijus

    Thank you for your comment.

    I agree with you to some extent. I just worry about the tendency that people have to focus on learning more and more about less and less. Gaining expertise is wonderful as long as we don’t lose sight of our big picture goals.

  • Talk to me more about what an “inner resume” is. Are we just talking about like in High School, being a more well rounded person?

    Sam
    .-= Financial Samurai´s last blog ..An Opportunity To Speak With Consumerism Commentary =-.

  • Kenji

    @Sam
    An inner resume are things like your integrity, work-ethic, intelligence and so on. They are all things that employers value. Unfortunately, you can’t just put “I have a good work ethic” on your resume since these things must be shown through action and not read about.

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