Are You a Jack or a Specialist?

Dan4thFlickr When I graduated from college and went to work in consulting I was told from the earliest days of my internship to pick something and stick with it. Jack of all trades, master of none, I was told. I had to choose whether I’d be a generalist with a wide breadth of knowledge, or a specialist with deep understanding of a single topic.

As a young staffer I had to go where I was needed, but I kept looking for my niche. In consulting it doesn’t take long to become an ‘expert’ in a particular area and once you have been labeled, the momentum propels you into full on specialization. The risk lies in choosing the right specialty. As the year 2000 approached, my colleagues who’d launched careers on correcting a coding error had to scramble to find a new prospects.

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The best thing about working for someone else was that even though in terms of my projects, I was a generalist, I still only had to do one thing: financial analysis. I didn’t have to think about accounting, ordering supplies, choosing an Internet provider, getting head shots taken, designing a logo, or at that level – even marketing my own work. I showed up and did my job. As soon as I decided to freelance (first in accounting and now as a writer) I had to do everything. Some days there is little time do the actual work.

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If you’re an entrepreneur or freelancer, you must be a generalist to some degree to get your business off the ground.

This is what Larry at the Industry Standard had to say:

In the very early days of a startup, generalists are preferred as they can wear many hats and accomplish the diverse kinds of tasks that come up in that environment. Companies that have evolved past the startup stage — small, medium and even large businesses — tend to require specialists who excel at handling specific tasks.

It makes me wonder if those of us who are fairly flexible and don’t mind taking on responsibilities outside our primary area of expertise are naturally drawn to go out on our own, to start companies and launch new ventures and then move on. But then, isn’t that a sort of specialization? Are we serial specialists?

What are your thoughts on being a generalist vs. a specialist and what do you consider yourself to be? Can a generalist ever be really good at something?

  • Rob

    Thank you for that article Lela…sometimes I feel like I’m “broken” somehow because I don’t have that ONE thing that defines me. I think it may have been Scott Adams (the Dilbert guy) that said (and I’m paraphrasing) that while specialization is valuable, it’s the unique intersections and combinations of the 2-3 things that we’re really good at that make us truly stand-out.

  • Drea

    I wonder whether generalists are the way they are because of capabilities or preference. I’m a generalist–tho I confess to sometimes having specialist-envy (they seem to get mighty far in the world, don’t they?). I feel intellectually capable of specializing, but boredom and a multitasking/ADD mind prohibit me from sticking with a single focus. My defense: some people specialize in being generalists. There are good jobs out there for people like us. Freelance writer, for example. Consultant. Teacher. Serial entrepreneur. I say the world needs generalists just as much as it needs specialists.

  • Ryan

    Jack, all out.

  • Kaiserxx

    I have always been an accountant – first in the corporate world and after 12 years, I went into public accounting. Now at age 68 I am semi-retired but still preparing tax returns and will continue to do so as long as my brain can comprehend the tax codes. My specialization allows me to continue to work. I made good investments but in today’s economy who knows how much I will need later in life.

  • I love Ryan’s unapologetic response. But I’m more like Rob, wondering why I can’t just do the one thing, over and over again. Drea’s probably got it right – lack of attention span.

    As for tax codes, agh. At least those are always changing. That gives some respite from boredom. My last tax season I sat for a week doing the same trust returns I’d done the year before. The whole time I was thinking there was no way I could do those a third year in a row. I’d have gone mad. It’s different working for a big firm – you get to master it then teach it to someone else.