Are Generalists Better Than Specialists?
Are you better off in your career focusing one or two related technologies or following a more well-rounded technology route? This post takes a look at the age-old question to see if there's an answer.
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This is another video where I’ll discuss the old-fashioned battle about whether you should become a specialist or not. I’ve done so many videos about that topic that it is totally recommended that you check my playlist on “Specialization And Niching Down”.
So, in this video, I received a very interesting question. A reader from the blog asked me why I’ve contradicted myself in this topic. he said that I said, in some old video of mine, that you should be a generalist. Wait, what? How could that be possible?
If you watch my channel, you’ve probably heard me talking about how important I think it is for someone to become a specialist, instead of a generalist. But… did I really say that? Are generalists really better than specialists?
Watch this video and find out!
Transcript Of Video
Hey, what’s up? John Sonmez from simpleprogrammer.com. I got a good question for you today. This is the topic that I get asked about the most. In fact, I have a whole playlist. So much of my email I just send them to this playlist. You can see this playlist on being a generalist versus being a specialist or why you should be a specialist. If you’ve seen my How To Market Yourself as a Software Developer course, if you’ve heard me speak at a conference or something, I always talk about being a specialist and people always say, “No!” It’s not that they necessarily say no about it, it’s that they — it’s uncomfortable and then they’re afraid of being pigeonholed. Anyway, I’ve answered a lot of those questions, but I thought this one was good because it’s always good like if you ever feel me being like hypocritical in some way or having a contradiction, call that out. Send me an email or send a comment because it’s good to address these type of things.
One thing I’ll say about contradictions is — one thing I learned in acting class a long time ago was that people are contradictions. If you try to play a part in a play or movie or something like that and you play anger not only — it’s anger and love at the same time. People are honestly—a real emotion is a contraction. So when you just try to play the pure emotion it doesn’t work out that way. A lot of life is like that. At a surface level it seems like it’s a contradiction, but no that’s how things are.
Anyway, enough. I’ll get to the actual question here. He says, “Hi, John. I hear you’re a strong advocate of specializing and I understand why. However, in one of the books you recommend, The Passionate Programmer,” which we put a link here. If you’re on mobile, of course, it will be below but in The Passionate Programmer — which is a good book, “It is recommended one becomes a generalist as they are also rare, sought after and flexible enough to play many roles during a project. Is there a way to unite these 2 theories without them contradicting each other?” That’s why I gave you that little speech contradiction at the beginning. “Kind regards, Anton.”
So yes, there is a way, and here’s the thing. There’s this concept that is called like a T-shaped knowledge. Some people say like an E or comb-shaped knowledge. What it is is essentially this. Elon Musk is a really good example of this because the dude is like, you know, he’s a rocket scientist, literally. He’s a financial guru. He has a bunch of different areas where he has deep, deep knowledge. He’s a specialist in multiple areas, but the reason why he’s so successful is because he’s taken what he knows about finance, he’s taken what he knows about cars and battery and physics, and rocket science and he’s combined them together in other ways that other people can’t because they don’t have that depth of knowledge.
That’s where that real advantage comes from, but in order to do that, what you have to do is you got to have a broad base. That’s important so you can do well in Jeopardy. Everyone has to do well in Jeopardy. You got to have a broad base and you got to go deep in certain areas, and you start with one area and you go really, really deep with that, right? A lot of my knowledge is sort of — I have a lot of these sort of combs. I have certain expertise in real estate investment and in different parts of software development, and then in fitness and in finance. I’ve developed each one of these kind of expertise and they’ve helped me to be — my goal is kind of to be sort of like a renaissance man, but a lot of people don’t — they get that wrong because what they think is that they think to be a generalist. Jack of all trades is worthless.
What’s really valuable and what renaissance man of the past were was that they had multiple deep disciplines, multiple specialties. The reason why what I say might sound slightly contradictory is because I’m usually talking to people getting started that don’t have a specialty at all. The best advice I can give you at that point is specialize. Pick something. Go deep. Go super deep with it. You still have to have your base knowledge, but go super deep with it. Later on when you’re done with that or when you’ve taken that out as far as you want to take it, go pick something else that interests you and go deep with that. The more of those that you get, then you’re going to be like the Jeopardy wizard. Everybody is going to be like, “Oh, wow. How the heck does this guy know about all this stuff? He must be a generalist.” That’s why generalists are so valuable. Not generalists are so valuable. It’s not jack of all trades are so valuable. It’s people who have deep knowledge in multiple areas and seem like they know everything. That’s who’s valuable but they’re not generalists by any means.
What you will find if you examine them with a magnifying glass is you’ll find that they have very, very deep specialties, but they have a lot of them because they spend a lot of time honing their craft. They weren’t scatter brained all over the place trying to be a generalist. There is actually a really good book. I’m hesitant to recommend it because I just started it, but the author is so good that I’ll recommend it anyway, just listening to the audio version. It’s called Deep Work. It’s by Cal Newport. He’s a great guy. I think he did a book Good to Great which was an awesome, and that’s a book about finding your passion, about not finding your passion.
Anyway, in Deep Work, he talks about this idea. He talks about it so much, at least so far in the book, of the world today is everyone is a generalist. They’re distracted. They don’t know how to work deeply and how much of a value that you can have if you can do that.
I stand by my statement of being a specialist, but my ultimate goal for you is to become a multi-specialist. Multiple specialties which will make you seem like a generalist, but what you’ll really be is a multi-expert. You’ll be a renaissance man and that’s the goal that you should have for yourself in your career, and that’s where you’re going to see the most success by far.
If you look at what I’ve done with Simple Programmer and all of this, it follows that path. I didn’t know what I was doing. The benefit that you guys have listening to my videos is I’m telling you I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was just trying to figure out as I go, but I wish that I had some of the knowledge that I have now when I was your age, some of you younger kids out there. Hey, whatever.
Anyway, great question and hopefully that clears things up for you. That book, Pragmatic Programmer, a great book, by the way. If you have a question you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you haven’t subscribed already, I don’t know what you’re doing, you better subscribe otherwise you’re going to miss the videos. Take care.
Published at DZone with permission of John Sonmez. See the original article here.
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