Charlie's Blog: The Generalist and the Specialist


The Generalist and the Specialist

A jack of all trades is a master of none, but often times better than a master of one.

I have seen this quotation attributed to Shakespeare, but I couldn't say for sure that Billy Boy made this quip in any of his works. It doesn't matter because it is true. It serves as both compliment and insult. It also begs the question. Is it better to be a generalist or a specialist?

This topic came back to my mind a few weeks ago when we took a friend to the auto body place to inspect her wrecked vehicle. The car was totaled, and the guy told her that she could go ahead and get her things out of the car and take her license plate. I reached into my pocket and took out the small Leatherman Squirt multitool I carry on my key chain and opened the screwdriver attachment to remove the plate. It struck me how handy these multitools can be especially when one of them is all you have. It made me resolve to get a larger Leatherman to carry on my belt.

The Leatherman multitool is the best symbol I have of the value of being a generalist. The Leatherman is truly the jack of all tools. It is not the best of tools, but it is very handy when you need it. It certainly saves you a trip back to the toolbox to get the specialized tool. I have seen many fellows who carry one regularly on their person.

I would never use a Leatherman to overhaul an engine, plumb a house, or chop firewood. When it comes to certain tasks, the specialized tool is the only one that will do. Anyone who thinks he can replace a box of tools with a Leatherman is a fool. By the same token, you can't carry that box of tools in your pocket.

The same principle is at play when it comes to what you choose to do in life. Many folks come to the crossroads in life when they have to choose to be a generalist or to become a specialist. This choice comes with reward and regret. Neither choice is the right one or the wrong one because they have their upsides and downsides.

The upside of becoming a specialist is that it is much easier to focus on doing one thing well. It can also be more lucrative. The downside is that you may also be unemployed or become unemployable if your one thing becomes obsolete or can be done by a machine. I have seen this happen to specialists in my lifetime. They go from being rich to becoming broke.

The upside of becoming a generalist is that it makes you more employable and more useful. The downside is that generalists usually don't make as much as specialists even if they are always employed. There is less downside risk in being a generalist, but there is also less upside reward. If you're a narcissist, you probably won't be able to handle being a generalist.

Another aspect of the specialist/generalist debate is personal fulfillment. Specialization leads to boredom. Generalists are never bored. It takes more work and intelligence to be competent at various tasks than to be supremely gifted and trained for one task. Specialists make up for this lack of stimulation by seeking out competition. It becomes a game to them. When there is competition, there are egos. Generalists oppose this competitive spirit and tend towards humility.

Some people will argue that you can be both a generalist and a specialist at the same time. I disagree. I'm not sure what drives this crazy idea except a naive belief that you can have it both ways. You can't. As a golfer relative of mine once told me, he was never going to make the PGA tour while holding down a day job. I did not doubt him. Likewise, you're never going to make the top grades necessary for Harvard Medical School while also tending bar. You need rich parents for that which is why wealth has a way of perpetuating itself.

It may sound like I am selling the generalist path since I am biased on this topic, but I strive to be evenhanded in my discussion here. I appreciate the fact that my eye doctor specialized in his field, and I chose him based upon that expertise and ratings. I wanted the best guy to cut on my eyes. When you get your sight back, it makes you appreciate specialists.

Specialists are good for the world in general, but specialization is not so good for the individual. If my eye doctor developed a tremor in his hand or his own vision problems, then he better have a good financial planner looking after his money. The general practitioner doesn't have the same risks. This is why the path of the generalist looks better over the long haul. That path seems more certain and secure even if it is less lucrative.

Certain fields and endeavors tend to favor the generalist over the specialist. For instance, all blue collar jobs and trades favor the generalist. I have never known a plumber who didn't know a bit of carpentry, drywall repair, and electrical wiring as these come into contact with his profession. And if his van breaks down, he will not hesitate to pop the hood on that thing. I doubt the computer programmer wastes any time learning about the electrical wiring powering his machine.

In the military, specialists favor the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force as all three of those branches have specialized jobs for those who score high on their tests. The Marine Corps tends to favor the generalist who is primarily an infantryman who can learn additional skills as needed. As the Corps puts it, "Every Marine is, first and foremost, a Rifleman." This applies even to the desk jockey pushing a pencil. This is also why the Marines have been reluctant to provide personnel to the spec ops community because this requires specialization and a loss of those Marines to the service of other departments and missions. Turning these generalists into specialists also hurts morale as this brings in competition with many wanting to become special operators. Once you become a special operator, you don't want to go back to peeling potatoes and cleaning latrines.

In the world of sports and fitness, you will notice certain physiques serve certain functions. Basketball players tend to be tall, lean, and athletic. Marathon runners tend to be skinny and light with great aerobic capacity. Cyclists tend to be skinny and light from the waist up and muscled from the waist down. Bodybuilders are human statues while powerlifters are slabs of meat able to exert great strength. The generalist in the physique category would be the rugby player who is strong in the upper and lower body, heavy in weight, lean in muscle, and possessing the same aerobic capacity as a soccer player but the same strength as an American football player. I think the Rugby player physique is the most functional for general activities and life. They are the Leatherman tools of athletes.

In the world of academics and the mind, the generalist will simply be well read in all of the basic subjects of history, literature, philosophy, science, etc. He will not be a polymath or Renaissance Man like Leonardo da Vinci since this requires the same level of performance as a specialist but across multiple disciplines. Basically, a polymath is a master of all instead of one. I don't know if this is feasible in our day and time as knowledge has increased exponentially but not the time in which to learn it.

I think to be a generalist requires a real desire to follow that path. People motivated by greed or an aversion to work are not going to take this path. I have tried to recall generalists from my work or life that I have encountered, but my mind is drawing a blank. I remember one fellow who was fond of saying, "That's not in my job description." He did not possess a robust work ethic. Unfortunately, most followed his example.

Personally, I choose the generalist path. I'm not particularly good at one thing, but I am competent at many things and flexible enough to adapt to new things when needed. But I have learned one great lesson from specialists. If you are bad at something, you shouldn't do it at all. It is better to pay someone to do it right than pay them to do it right after you messed it up. Generalists should know when to let the specialists take over.

The key for the generalist is competence. The generalist knows that he needs to perform to a certain level of satisfaction but not more. A generalist can be a short order cook but not a French chef. A generalist can be an EMT or paramedic but not a surgeon. This is why being a generalist requires humility. You have to know what you can do competently and also what you shouldn't do at all. You leave the higher level stuff to the specialists.

I do not believe it is better to be either a generalist or a specialist. Each path has its upsides and its downsides. You have to decide for yourself which path fits your skills, talents, and personality. What is best is what will be best for you. Also know, you will always feel regret whichever path you take. You can't have it all which is the most important lesson in this debate. Learn to live with that brutal fact of life.