Friday, February 08, 2013

Specialist or Generalist?

Does one do one thing well, or many things reasonably?

This is the puzzle to which I keep coming back: is focus on one thing the path to success or a more generalized knowledge of many things?

Specialists are useful, of course, and well rewarded.  They have keen insights into the nature of whatever it is they are specialists of.  They are able in many cases to command high salaries.  The best of them never go without a position.

But my restraint in not wholeheartedly being a fan is that specialization is a fine thing as long as your speciality is in demand.  When it falls by the wayside, or even when it becomes less important than it was, you find yourself in the position of having too many crocodiles in a rapidly drying pool.  Spend time around a dying industry and you will discover precisely how polite even the most educated can be when the focus of their years of experience and expertise is disappearing.

Generalists are not nearly as well rewarded as a rule.  But they are useful:  the ability to pull from a vast store of knowledge can be a great thing for problem solving.  And perhaps they don't know as much about one thing, but they do know something about a great many things.  This makes them more flexible.

Specialists and generalists both have their place, of course:  without specialists we would not have the advances in technology and medicine that we have; without generalists much of the underlying work to make these advances possible would not be performed.  Both types are necessary to keep the ecosystem of society moving forward.

Which am I?  I'm generalist.  I'm just too interested in too many things (most of which will never be a direct career choice, of course:  the roles of harpists and swordsmen are fairly limited in our current society) to become an expert in one.  There are just too many interesting things in life to specialize:  even when I am reading, I inevitably find more that I could learn about.  I need to become better, of course:  if one wants to do something well, one must acquire some level of expertise in something.

But some level is not to the exclusion of everything else.  I may (as I do) have to learn more about my career field to move along in it; that will never replace the need (and want) to learn about cheese and cattle and Japanese history and why bees do what they do.

Because you never know when the battle of Ichi-no-tani will inform your day to day life.

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