Zoom-in vs Zoom-out: Resources for the Generalist-Specialist Trade-Off
“Employers don’t want a jack of all trades; you need to specialize.”
“Employers don’t want an inflexible professional; you need to be well-rounded.”
This is the type of conflicting advice people give. When it comes to career advice, there’s no shortage of self-styled mentors. In fact, there’s an abundance of pontificators who will assure you that they know what’s best for you — and all you’ve got to do is heed their advice to guarantee yourself a successful future. Why this self-assuredness? Well, they have 20 years of experience and this is what life has taught them. What these well-meaning, if delusionally confident, people fail to recognize is that people who have more experience than them and who have devoted a considerable amount of their life studying the specific issue in question disagree on the matter.
They fail to appreciate the trade-off that comes with their espoused view. The specialization vs generalization debate is no exception to this. The aim of this article is to provide quality resources to explore this question in depth. It also demonstrates the diversity of opinions surrounding the issue. The article will list specialist resources (or at least lending themselves to the specialist camp), generalist resources (or at least wanting to even the scales by moving towards the generalist side) and hybrid resources.
|Cal Newport||Zen Valedictorian, Deep work, Serial Specialist|
|Lee Fredrikson||Differentiation, The Visible Expert®|
|Gladwell’s popularizations of Ericsson’s Research||10,000 hours rule|
|Josh Kaufman||20 Hours Rule|
|Philip Tetlock||Foxes vs Hedgehogs|
|Pat Flynn||Generalist = short-term specialist,80-20 rule, Expert-generalist, skill-stacking|
|Vikram Mansharmani||Multiple Perspectives, reductionism of the specialist|
|Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg||The Learning Animal, bias of the specialist|
|Samuel Arbesman||Innovation through connecting items from different worlds|
|David Guest, but popularized by Tim Brown, championed by Nick Lovegrove,||T-Shaped|
|Wai Fong Boh and Andrew Ouderkirk||Polymaths|
|Beatrice Van der Heijden||Flexperts|
Specialism: Deepening experience as opposed to broadening it.
Professionals in this list either favor specialism, or simply emphasize the benefits of specialism or developed a concept that is used by the specialist camp even if they themselves did not address the debate.
- Calvin Newport | Author and computer science professor; relevant work includes So good they can’t ignore you: Why Skill Trumps Passion book and his Study Hacks blog.
“The Zen Valedictorian is a specialist,” he writes. “He focuses on a small number of areas and works consistently over time to become outstanding in them. He realizes that the relationship between reward and skill level is not linear, but, instead, exponential. A corollary of this truth: being excellent at one thing can yield significantly more rewards than being good at many…(P)eople are more impressed by someone who makes them ask “how did he do that?” than someone who has a sizable laundry list of standard activities. Achieving the former, fortunately, requires less time — and significantly less stress — than achieving the latter.” Based on this he advises students to stick with one major.
According to Newport, highly accomplished students are successful because they focus on fewer topics. Their achievements at first might seem all over the place, but upon examination, one can see that they’re often one after another and not at the same time. “[T]the proper reaction to an elite student such as Nicholas is not ‘I should be doing more,’ but instead: ‘I should be doing less’.”
He also argues that famous polymaths such as Da Vinci were actually serial specialists. They could pull off mastering multiple fields — but only one after another and their mastery in the previous field allowed them to branch out to other ones.
Harvard economics professor Ken Rogoff had to make the hard decision of leaving his beloved chess behind at graduate school. He thought spending time both in chess and economics would do a disservice to both. For Newport, this shows that focusing on two interests was too much
for Rogoff; he had to choose only one.
Powerlifter Dave Tate says, “Yes, you can achieve balance, and as I said, this isn’t a bad goal. All I’m saying is that you can either be balanced or you can be great. You shouldn’t expect both at the same time. I can already hear the murmurs of dissent from the peanut gallery. ‘Dave, you have to keep a balance in your life to move ahead. How can you say balanced people can’t be great?’”
“My response is, show me one great person who achieved balance at the time of his greatness. To be in the top 10% of anything requires a selfish, fanatical drive that most people will never understand, let alone possess. Maybe there’s someone somewhere who can be great at everything, but I haven’t seen it.” [Newport mistakenly refers to the powerlifter as Matt Kroc. He probably made this error because Matt Kroc is mentioned in the same page by Dave Tate.] Both cases are mentioned by Newport in a positive light.
Based on economist Peter G. Sassone’s “Law of Diminishing Specialization,” Newport’s piece shows how having senior professionals do admin work instead of delegating it to admin staff can dilute their work leading to less deep work and, therefore, less efficiency.
It’s somewhat ironic to me that Newport is a computer science professor. His blog and books do not seem to be directly relevant to computer science, so even a strong proponent of specialism like Newport can still venture into multiple fields.
- Peter Thiel | Co-founder of PayPal and Palantir Technologies
“Silicon Valley billionaire and entrepreneur Peter Thiel,” Lovegrove writes, “went further in his book Zero to One, arguing that we should each make an explicit and lifelong commitment to a single career objective.”[
- Lee Frederiksen | Hinge Marketing Research Institute and behavioral psychology, formerly professor at Virginia Tech. Hinge’s relevant publications include the Visible Expert® book and Differentiation Guide for Professional Services Firms.
In the context of professional services, Frederiksen believes that specialists surpass generalists in profit, as he explains in an interview on the Rain Today podcast. He realizes that taking a decision to limit the targeted client seems counterintuitive, but says that the research strongly supports that this increases profit rather than decrease it. He points out that faced between two choices, clients will chose the firm that is more “appropriate” to them; the one that specializes in the issue they’re dealing with rather than the one that addresses their issue as a part of a big list of many issues. He thinks that the #1 contributing factor for a company’s marketing growth is have having a good differentiator.
- 10,000 hours | Malcolm Gladwell’s popularization of psychologist Anders Ericsson (which Ericsson doesn’t like)
Basically, the 10,000 hours rule means that you need 10,000 hours of dedication to a skill to reach top-level performance. You’re not guaranteed to become an expert after those 10,000 hours, but the takeaway is that you need a ton of practice. The quality of this dedicated practice is important as well. The rule is mired with controversy and allegations of misquotation and misunderstanding by many sides. It was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell based on Ericsson’s research. Ericsson was anything but happy with the way Malcolm wrote about this concept. With the limited number of hours we have in our lives, we can see why this “rule” can be an ally to the specialist camp. It is mentioned by former McKinsey managing partner Nick Lovegrove in his article with a precaution that it might lead to over-specialization. Although one can still argue that even if you take this number at face value, you can still become a master in multiple fields. Lovegrove also notes this in his piece.
Carr also puts Gladwell in the specialist camp, or at least as ammunition in the specialists arsenal. He seems to lament the state of affairs today in regards to the dialectic between specialization and generalization: “A new orthodoxy, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, sees obsessive focus as the key that unlocks genius.” (See an example here of a blog that sees the 10,000 hours rule lending itself to the specialist camp.)
Generalism: Broadening experience as opposed to deepening it.
Professionals in this list either favor generalism, or simply emphasize the benefits of generalism, or think that specialism has been overstressed so they’re calling for more balance or developed a concept that is used by the generalist camp even if they themselves did not address the debate.
- Josh Kaufmann |First 20 hours (contrast to the 10,000 hours in the specialist list):
His site tells the reader to “forget the 10,000 hours rule” and his book is supposed to help the reader accomplish this courageous claim:
“By completing just 20 hours of focused, deliberate practice you’ll go from knowing absolutely nothing to performing noticeably well.” Of course, “noticeably well” is quite a different goal from the world-class master performance the 10,000 hours rule is associated with. But one can see how Kaufmann’s book lends itself to being championed by the generalist camp because of its alleged ability to allow the person to be proficient in many skills.
- Philip Tetlock | Professor of psychology and political science at University of Pennsylvania. Co-founder of Good Judgement Project.
He is known for the “Hedgehog vs Fox” comparison. It is very relevant to the specialist-generalist trade-off. See seminar “Why Foxes are better forecasters than hedgehogs.”
“It’s a matter of judgement style, first expressed by the ancient Greek warrior poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one great thing.” … In Tetlock’s interpretation, Hedgehogs have one grand theory (Marxist, Libertarian, whatever) which they are happy to extend into many domains, relishing its parsimony, and expressing their views with great confidence. Foxes, on the other hand are skeptical about grand theories, diffident in their forecasts, and ready to adjust their ideas based on actual events. The aggregate success rate of Foxes is significantly greater, Tetlock found,” as this introduction to one of his lectures explains.
Or as this piece from The New Yorker details: “Tetlock also found that specialists are not significantly more reliable than non-specialists in guessing what is going to happen in the region they study. Knowing a little might make someone a more reliable forecaster, but Tetlock found that knowing a lot can actually make a person less reliable. ‘We reach the point of diminishing marginal predictive returns for knowledge disconcertingly quickly,’ he reports. ‘In this age of academic hyper specialization, there is no reason for supposing that contributors to top journals—distinguished political scientists, area study specialists, economists, and so on—are any better than journalists or attentive readers of the New York Times in ‘reading’ emerging situations.’ And the more famous the forecaster the more overblown the forecasts. ‘Experts in demand,’ Tetlock says, ‘were more overconfident than their colleagues who eked out existences far from the limelight.'”
- Patt Flynn |“Expert Generalist” His best-known book is How to Be Better at Almost Everything: Learn Anything Quickly, Stack Your Skills, Dominate)
Podcast episode can be found here. He emphasizes the law of diminishing returns. It argues, basically, that after a certain point, the rate of the return you get on investing in an old skill decreases — so you’re better off investing in another skill once you reach that point.
- Jennifer Merluzzi and Damon Phillips |
According to their study in Administrative Science Quarterly, investment banks prefer generalists over specialists based on hiring percentage.
- Vikram Mansharmani |
Mansharamani is a Harvard lecturer who specializes in addressing difficult decision-by utilizing multiple perspectives.He thinks that the dominance that specialists had will not last. He predicts that generalists will rise in the future. Why? What we think as unrelated things will impact each other due to the globalized nature of the modern world. Also, his second point is a critique of specialists that can be summarized with the adage: “If your only tool is hammer, then you deal with all problems as nails.” (You can see more on this here.)
- Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg | Tech figures cited in the book How Google Works
Because the technology world is ever-changing, ability to think trumps past experience since your experience might become obsolete. Also, specialists might be partial and threatened by new developments. Those are the reasons why Google favors generalists or “learning animals” over specialists. (For more on this, see video interview with the authors of How Google Works.
- Samuel Arbesman | Complexity scientist
While he appreciates specialists, he thinks there is great value in having more generalists in our lives to complement them so he aims to promote generalist thinking. A big part of this value comes from the innovation that results when items from different worlds mix, so a big part of his work is about connecting those seemingly unconnected items.
- Nick Lovegrove | Relevant work includes his book Mosaic: The Six Dimensions Of A Remarkable Life And Career and the article “The danger of having too many experts”
I included him here and in the hybrid list because even though he identifies himself within the hybrid group, he does offer multiple critiques of specialism in order to “redress the imbalance.” The LinkedIn study he mentions is especially noteworthy.
- Other names to refer to generalists (although not all are academic): Multi-potenial-ite by Emilie Wapnick, Scanner by Barbara Sher, The Renaissance Soul by Margaret Lobenstine. The Modern Renaissance is also mentioned in Mastery by Greene. Poly-math (although it’s sometimes used to refer to hybrid people).
- Here are some generalist-style websites to give you a feel of what a generalist looks like. Some are less academic than the resources mentioned above.
Puttylike | A Home for Multipotentialites!
Creative Generalist | Eclectic Curiosity
Jack of All Trades – How to Master Multiple Skills Quickly | Udemy
Hybrid: Broadening and deepening one’s experience.
Professionals in this list favor a middle position in the trade-off or developed concepts or terms for that.
The hybrid between the specialist and generalist is favored by Nick Lovegrove. There are multiple terms for the hybrid (all mentioned in the “Danger of Having Too Many Experts”):
- Wai Fong Boh and Andrew Ouderkirk call them the polymaths. After 10 years of specialization, these professionals start to branch out to other fields while still having a strong base in their specialization. (The term is confusing since it’s used by other authors to refer to more extreme generalists as well). In their study, generalists do well in the quantity of inventions. Specialists do well in the technical quality of the invention. And the polymaths do well in terms of commercial success.
- Beatrice Van der Heijden | Professor at Radboud University coined the term “flexperts.”
- T-Shaped Skills | David Guest, but popularized by Tim Brown. Agile coach Jason Yip explains T-shaped Skills like this: Specialists are needed for bottlenecks. Generalists are needed when there is collaboration with other departments. Having a single person (T-shaped) who combines both makes the organization more efficient.
Hashem ElAssad is a University of Toronto psychology graduate with Honors distinction. Using his research and analytical skills, he prepares content for Talentology Training’s services and products (workshops, lectures). On his free time he writes regularly on his blog (https://paradoxicallyparadoxical.wordpress.com/list-of-posts/). To learn more about Hashem and his works visit his Linked-In page HERE.