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Specialization is Death
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As a consummate generalist, or serial-specialist, I’ve straddled the specialist vs generalist line for a long time.
Business advisors, columnists, and colleagues all recommended I specialize to succeed. Yet my panoply of interests prevented me from sticking to a path for more than a couple years.
I believed I had to specialize, but nothing I specialized held my interest. I’ve been filmmaker, software developer, writer, teacher, designer, consultant, actor, and a bevy of other temporary titles. And I often discarded everything else to become that one thing.
I gave up on software development to become an entrepreneur. I gave up my business to become an actor, I gave up acting to become a tech educator, and on it goes.
I believed in specialization because it seemed that all ‘the greats’ were specialists in their fields, able to pierce the veil of mediocrity by doing one thing exceptionally well.
I loathed the idea of living a mediocre life and producing mediocre work. And with every path I traveled, I performed fairly well because I am exceptional in one way: I can learn almost anything.
In each endeavor, I reached a point where my abilities satisfied me while my results disappointed — I lacked the grit to persevere in the face of an upward climb. After I repeated this pattern at least half-a-dozen times, life forced me to adopt one of two realities.
Reality one: I had yet to find my ‘correct’ career path. If this were true, all I needed to do was repeat this pattern until I struck gold or the bottom of a casket.
And reality two: I am profoundly incompatible with specialization.
I chose two, and you should too. Let’s talk about it.
“I’ll Have The Chef’s Specialty…” Risky Move
Specialists are more likely to find gainful employment, receive greater salaries, and achieve publicly-visible success. But with specialty comes risk.
The odds of choosing a specialty in your twenties that provides a rewarding and lasting career until the day you retire is approximately bupkus. Every specialty faces elimination, and that’s merely a function of time.
The longer one remains a specialist, the greater the chance a new specialty replaces theirs, extinguishing their purpose in the marketplace. This is as true of individuals as it is of businesses.
If your business is a middle-man or manufactures a singular widget, your existence is predicated on customers needing that middle-man and clients demanding that widget.
As an example, look at the shellacking the Internet gave to travel agencies.
Generalists are naturally more flexible, creative, and resilient. Generalists combine their talents in ways that specialists cannot, and offer ideas that specialists are incapable of producing.
The downside appears to be that generalization lacks allure.
You’re Okay, Generally Speaking
There’s nothing sexy about being ‘kind of decent’ at a dozen things — the Oscars of multi-tasking don’t exist.
And generalists struggle to market themselves and remain focused long enough to out-compete specialists for the limited number of clients and jobs.
In light of all that, why remain a generalist?
When breaking into something new, such as business or your work-life, specialization creates more interest and opens more doors.
A young business or recent grad are presumed to have limited experience in their fields, and thereby, limited capabilities — it’s natural that young people and infant organizations lack experience, or are at least presumed to lack it.
To succeed, your goal is to specialize at the start, but generalize and diversify your skill set and offerings into new arenas as time goes on.
This strategy helps you break through while keeping you nimble during rough times; it’s the best of both worlds.
As a yearly practice, I recommend you divide your business activities into three categories:
Things you should stop doing, the business that’s taking 80% of your time but generating 20% of the revenue
Things you should do more of, the business that’s doing well and to which you should dedicate more resources
And lastly, new things you should try
You cut as much as you can from category one, double-down on category two, and get creative and take a calculated risk on category three.
Over time, your category threes become category twos, your twos become your ones, and your ones drift off into history.
Since you’re still reading this, you know I’m great at giving advice and awful at following it. I’ve struggled tremendously with specialization because it bores me to tears.
However, I cannot escape the reality of marketing and perception: brand new things are, by their nature, untrustworthy — by specializing, they are far more likely to get their foot in the door.
But remember, we need only be specialists on the outside; on the inside we can and will remain the bizarre rainbow wonder people we naturally are.