Why You Can’t Afford to Be a Generalist

Written by Corbett Barr

If you consider yourself a generalist, here’s the good news: doing great work in the future will require the skills of a generalist, especially if you work independently or on a small team.

And more and more of us are working independently these days. 40% of American workers will be freelancers by 2020 (and according to Freelancer’s Union, 33% of us already are) and freelancers need to be generalists to be successful. You have to know a little bit of everything.

Company founders need to be generalists too. Running a business requires wearing so many hats!

But here’s the problem: you can’t afford to just be a generalist. People get hired for a specialty or a small set of deep skills. Products get purchased for the specific problem they solve. Businesses get built on concrete expertise.

If you’ve been wearing the generalist title proudly, you’re making your life hard. I know because I used to carefully craft my resume to paint myself as a jack of all trades. When I decided to brand myself first as a software developer, then as a project manager, and later as the traffic guy when I went on my own, that’s when things got good and everything became possible.

Where does a generalist apply for a position on the job boards? Where is the “generalist needed” section in Craigslist? How does a founder with only shallow skills get her first prototype off the ground?

The motivation for being a generalist is understandable. It’s fun to learn new things. It’s great to know a little about a lot. The rush of diving into a new topic is something you can count on.

But this is also a cop-out. The easiest learning comes in the first 20 hours. You can learn a lot when something is fresh and exciting. But can you learn a skill that’s sellable in 20 hours?

Becoming a generalist happens to people like us who get really excited about a new thing and can’t help but learn everything we can… until we get bored and move on to the next thing.

Being a specialist is about discipline, and generalists find this kind of discipline hard to come by.

But you have to be an expert in something, or a handful of things, if you expect to charge top rates, land the coveted jobs, or create the next hot product.

Gary Vaynerchuk dropped this little gem yesterday: Stop Asking Me About Your Personal Brand, and Start Doing Some Work. Generalists have the right idea: you need to know about a lot of things to succeed in this world. But you have to start doing the work it takes to be an expert and a generalist at the same time.

Otherwise it’s all branding and no skills. An inch deep and a mile wide.

Forcing yourself to be solely a specialist isn’t the answer either. Specialists have to rely on other people too much and bear too much risk that the market might change.

The intersection of the two is where the magic happens. Become an expert and a generalist at the same time, and you’ll be unstoppable.

And here’s the ironic part: once you become an expert at something, your generalist skills will be more valuable than ever. The expertise gets your foot in the door. It makes you valuable and opens opportunities. Once you land the opportunities, you can embrace your generalist nature all you want.

The trick is figuring out what to become an expert at, and how to find the discipline you need to stick with it.

Those are the two questions you should be asking yourself. Instead of “what should I learn next” ask yourself: “what skill is valuable and interesting enough for me to become one of the world’s best at?” Then ask yourself where you’ll find the motivation and create the habits to follow through.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Share your take on being a generalist in the comments below.

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