The well-rounded truth is: both.
The difference between a specialist and a generalist is pretty self-explanatory by their name.
Specialist: someone who has mastery of one specific skill set and is oriented to details.
Generalist: someone who has broad skill sets and is oriented to the big picture.
For a long time, generalists have been undervalued and maybe even perceived under qualified. But, there has been increasing evidence of how necessary they are for any well-functioning system.
If everyone is a specialist, you can be missing really important big picture issues.
Generalists tend to see situations more holistically because they have gained a wide variety of skills in diverse environments.
Dave Epstein, author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World said, “Specialists are seeing one tiny portion of a complex system and if there’s no one looking at the overall system you can have some serious problems.”
When every employee is on the ground looking at details and gathering specific information, there is no one looking at how to integrate all of that gained knowledge. Information is void without context. Meaning, if you can’t integrate the pieces into a functioning whole, you will have a flawed structure.
Industry is growing at a rapid rate.
In a world where technology is advancing by the second, it becomes harder to be a specialist.
Specialists thrive doing one thing in a specific environment. What happens, then, when that environment changes? Technology is becoming more specialized and machines are geared towards automating human jobs. It is becoming near impossible to have the same career your whole life.
Specialists are less adaptable to the changing standards of industry than the generalist. Epstien says, “people have to learn and relearn more than they ever had to do in the past… (people) can specialize but they’re going to have to do it repeatedly”.
Generalists, who can wear multiple hats, are more flexible to the fast-paced changes of changing industries.
Carter Phillips, author of Evolutionaries states, “(Generalists) move from one field to another with ease and sometimes brilliance. They are unafraid to risk the wrath of the specialists and take research from one field and apply it to another. They shift gracefully from science to sociology to philosophy and then apply all they have gained in the journey to human life and culture. They are interpreters par excellence—synthesizers, holistically inclined pattern-recognizers.”
This is not to say that specialists are no longer valuable, but rather, generalists are also valuable. Some people need to be making the parts and some people need to be putting the parts together.
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This article was written by Kris Leigh Townsend.
Kris Leigh Townsend is a writer based in Los Angeles.