Is It Better To Be A Generalist Or A Specialist?

Is it better to be a specialist or a generalist when furthering your web design career? It’s a question that often gets discussed with varied opinions.

In one of those oddly regular coincidences in life as I began working on this post about generalists and specialists, I was pointed to an article and podcast with some of those opinions.

The article, All Hail the Generalist, makes the argument that business is showing declining returns from the specialist. The 8 minute podcast from Pagebreak discusses the article.

I think both specialists and generalists have important roles to play. Each has its own strength and both contribute to the bottom line.

I’d characterize myself as more of a generalist. I get bored doing the same thing all the time and enjoy the challenge of being thrown into something new. I like seeing how seemingly disparate things relate to one another.

Perpendicular patterns

Perpendicular Patterns

Look at any group of objects or concepts and patterns will emerge. Specialist and generalists are both able to recognize patterns. It’s a characteristic of human beings to form and find patterns. The difference between specialists and generalists is they’re looking at different things and so they discover different patterns.

  • Specialist — looks deeply at a specific discipline to find the patterns within it
  • Generalist — looks at different disciplines to find the patterns across them

In a sense they work perpendicular to each other and the patterns one sees are often obscured from the other. It’s likely why we sometimes think the patterns another recognizes are pulled from thin air. We simply can’t see the same dimension they see, since we’re focused on another.

You’ve probably seen a representation of what a 2-dimensional world would look like to a 1-dimensional being. The 1d being would see a line where a plane exists, since the being is unaware of the other dimension.

You can think of specialists and generalists in a similar way. Each is looking at something represented by 2 dimensions, though a single dimension. The specialist sees one dimension while the generalist sees the other and because of that each sees patterns the other doesn’t.

Both types of patterns are important, though.

  • within — leads to frequent and gradual improvement in a specific industry
  • across — leads to infrequent, though sweeping disruptions and new industries

The difference between specialists and generalists is they’re looking at different things and so they discover different patterns.

Imagine one person dedicates his life to painting. All he does all day long is break out one canvas after another and paints. Another person dedicates her life to practicing as many creative pursuits as possible. Some days she paints. Other days she plays music or writes or sculpts, or designs.

The first person likely becomes the better painter. He’ll come to better understand the differences between one canvas and the next or how different kinds of paint interact with each other or with sunlight. He’ll have practiced many ways to apply a dab of paint and know how to communicate better through the medium of paint on canvas.

The second person likely gains a greater understanding of art and creativity as a whole. She sees the connection between the brush strokes in a painting with the rhythm of sounds in a musical composition and the rhythm of words in writing. She may not know the best way to mix different paints to product a particular color, but she better understands the effects of color and its relationship to the rhythmic patterns mentioned above.

Again both are important. Each sees different patterns due to the different things they encounter and study.

Two 1-dimensional lines observing a pattern on a 2-dimensional plane

Specialists and Generalists

The time and effort it takes to go from complete novice to an advanced beginner is relatively little compared to the time it takes to become an expert. The learning for the novice is wider, while the learning for the expert is deeper.

Despite the shallow learning, by the time someone becomes an advanced beginner they have likely seen and gained familiarity with the majority of the entire discipline. It’s a shallow familiarity, but it’s a wide awareness.

On the other hand the deeper learning of the specialist takes him to places the generalist never sees and may never be aware exists.

For years becoming a specialist has usually been the way to advance your career. Where specialists are seen as experts and authorities, generalist have often been seen as drifters unable to focus on something long enough to become a specialist.

However, the world needs both. Each discovers new solutions to existing problems and new problems to solve. They just do it in different dimensions.

Where the specialist studies a particular tree in the forest and understands it better than anyone, the generalist sees the whole forest and knows a little something about each of them. The specialist could figure out what is needed to help the one tree thrive where it is. The generalist can observe the tree might better survive in a different part of the forest.

The specialist is better at dealing with a specific situation he or she has studied in depth. The generalist is better at dealing with the unknown because he or she can quickly see familiar patterns from the known in the unknown.

The first to market will likely be a generalist. The one who focuses on making something better or developing a niche within a market will likely be the specialist. If you need a better mousetrap find a specialist in mousetraps. If you aren’t sure if a mousetrap is what you need, find a generalist.

A metal bar, a shadow, and a paper clip, forming perpendicular lines in 3 dmensions

Summary

The question of specialist or generalist isn’t a case of either or. The answer to the question posed by this post is yes. It’s no. It’s not that one is better than the other. They’re just different and equally valuable in different ways. Each sees patterns in things that the other can’t see.

The specialist sees deep patterns in a specific subject. The generalist sees wide patterns connecting a variety of subjects. Patterns in different dimensions.

I suspect there’s a bit of left brain, right brain thing here, with the logical and analytical among us more likely to go the specialist route, while the more creative among us tends toward the generalist. Just a hunch on my part.

Which are you? Specialist or generalist? Do you think one should be more valued in society or do you agree with me that both are important?

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10 comments

  1. My mantra is be versatile, like water. :) Be able to fill any glass in life.

    You should be able to learn a range of technologies, while focusing on a few to be competent in. But not so much that you don’t understand any of them.

    • You can probably guess I’m the same way. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with focusing in on a narrow field and specializing though. Like I said in the post, both are valuable and both see things the other doesn’t.

  2. Typically I find that if you’re a programmer, it’s easier to do that. It’s pretty much impossible to specialize if you’re a web developer, because the web is built using a range of technologies. However, if say you wanted to be a jQuery expert, you could solely focus on that (but then you wouldn’t call yourself a web developer).

    If you’re a software developer though and you work with C++ or Java, you can pretty much specialize in any one of those and you’re set. I just find the web to be so diverse and dynamic, it’s hard to focus on one thing.

    If I’m wrong, feel free to correct me. That’s just my perspective.

    I intend to master HTML5, CSS3, JavaScript, MooTools, PHP, MySQL, and WordPress. With my goals and the domain I work, I guess my skill set is destined to be general. :P

    However, I can say I specialize in application development (type of work I do) and that’s fine.

    • I agree with you. I do think some professions lend themselves more to one or the other. To be a good designer for example it helps to understand design, art, psychology, business and marketing, and quite a few other things.

      At the same time someone could spend all their time focusing on a smaller subset of problems to solve. Someone could choose to be a type designer or spend all their time learning a CMS like WordPress. There are still ways to specialize as a web designer or front end coder.

  3. As a copywriter without a specialized niche, I consider myself I generalist. I know a little bit about anything I am hired to enlisted to write about, and this background has given me a broad, but critical examination point of media consumption and stylized writing.
    I like the idea of generalists and specialists working together, as I too find them equally valuable in any design or content development process. Having both perspectives gives a project greater texture, complimented by two worthwhile analyzations of a subject.

    Cheers,
    Sarah Bauer
    Navigator Multimedia

    • Writing is another field where being a generalist is useful. Granted you could specialize as say a technical writer, but for the most part the specialty is the writing itself and you can be more general with what you write about.

      Good point about having both adds to the texture. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but it fits well.

  4. Well I guess I’m a generalist with a high respect for specialists, with out them I couldn’t possibly be a generalist. I like to get obsessed with certain subjects until I feel exhausted with them then, move on to something else that interests me. I will of course always revisit them when I’ve exhausted the latest obsession.
    Interesting post by the way, I’ve never really thought about this until reading this, the habitual nature of a generalist I guess ;-)

    • We sound similar Elliott. I’m the same way getting obsessed with certain subjects before moving on to the next. I also come back and revisit the first obsession too. I really enjoy seeing the patterns across different things I also find some time away from a subject so I can absorb it helps me understand it better when I get back to it.

      And I too have a great respect for specialists.

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