Career coaching clients often ask me if they need to specialize in something to be successful. Here are my thoughts on the topic…
VIDEO TRANSCRIPT: “Today I want to talk a bit about should you be a specialist. This is a question I get a lot from people. People feel this need that they should specialize in something. And I think where this really comes from is this sort of deeply held belief that people have that specialization is good, and specialists get paid really well, and there is certainly evidence for that. If you look at physicians for example, the general practitioner generally makes less than the specialist. Almost all kinds of specialists, right? And so, there is this natural belief that specialization will pay more and be a more lucrative career than not being a specialist.
And certainly there are specialists I have worked with in the past. For example, I worked with an attorney at one point who was a specialist in pharmaceutical regulation and he charged close to a thousand dollars an hour. And so, there are specialties that get paid really well. But the thing that is negative about specialties is sometimes specialties can become obsolete. And so if you use sort of a hypothetical example, you can imagine that there are pilots today that fly for Fedex and UPS and some of them are paid well into six figures. And if that trend or that idea that’s being explored now around drones for example delivering packages comes to fruition, then what’s going to happen to those pilots? Well they have an extremely specialized skill that’s not really applicable to the rest of the business world and so they are likely to see their incomes really change quite a bit.
That’s a bit of an extreme example but you can see how if you specialize in one thing and that thing becomes less important somehow to the marketplace it can put you at risk. But on the other hand there are plenty of specialties where there is almost an infinite amount you can know and a very low likelihood of change and that can benefit you over the long term.
The other side to this is the generalist. A generalist is somebody who likes to learn a little bit about a lot of things. Sort of the master of no trades. A jack of all trades, master of none, kind of concept.
And so there are people who take that approach, and the nice thing about that approach is that there are a couple things that come out of it. One is this ability to really synthesize information, and be creative. In other words there’s types of individuals who have seen a lot of different things in a lot of different roles. They might have been in sales, they might have been in operations, they might have been in finance, and they can take those experiences and then apply them to what they are doing right now and that can be extremely valuable.
The other thing that those individuals tend to be good at is leadership, because they have led in a variety of different rolls and different situations and so rather than having subject matter expertise, they can lead people that have that subject matter expertise and bring that expertise to bear in terms of what they are doing. And the other nice thing about being a generalist is that it’s unlikely to ever be obsolete. So you can be a generalist in one type of industry and move to another, one type of firm and move to another one. The skill set is sort of broad and it’s always valuable to be able to lead people and come up with new ideas and synthesize what you are seeing.
So where does that leave you in terms of thinking about what you want to do? Well what I like to ask clients is really what seems naturally most interesting to you? Because there are some people who are just innately interested in becoming specialists and there are some people who are just innately interested in being generalist. And so as an example I know one individual who is an expert on financial retirement planning and he loves it, he loves knowing as much as he possibly can. The rumor is he reads IRS code when he’s on vacation. Now I don’t know if that’s true or not but it gives you a sense of what this individual is about. And sort of their just natural inclination is towards deep expertise.
Where as I know other people who love learning a little bit about everything. They are interested in everything, they are curious about everything, no real desire to know a lot about these things, but just know enough to sort of understand them. These people are natural generalist. And so where this leaves you in your career is really working towards the approach that works best for you and is most in line with the way your brain works. And I’ve seen both strategies be very effective and very successful for people. At a large multi billion dollar firm I’m familiar with if you look at their executive team you have both specialists and generalists. And I think you need that in a big business to be successful, you need people who have that deep expertise in a specific area and then you need people who can see that expertise and see what’s going on more broadly and synthesize that into creative and generative opportunities.
So the take away from all this is really a couple things. One is, if you’re a specialist, great by nature, keep specializing. If you’re a generalist have comfort in that. Embrace that and think about how you can more broadly learn and apply those skills of synthesis and leadership to what you are doing. And that is not to say by any means that being a leader is unique to generalists, specialist can be great leaders as well, just an opportunity there for generalist. But really be comfortable about that because your career can be successful in either direction, it’s just about picking what works best for you.”