Generalist vs. Specialist: How to Win the Job

generalist vs specialist
Image by Ryan McGuire from Pixabay

Generalist vs. specialist? Which is one is better for getting hired?

In the red corner, we’ve got The Specialist, aka The Laser, weighing in at 10,000 hours.

In the blue corner, we have Generalist “Jack-of-all-Trades” Smith, the underdog.

We’re looking for a good, clean fight. Let’s rumble!

Generalist vs. Specialist: A Look at the Fighters

First, let’s start with the specialist. The specialist is someone who has spent most or all of his or her career in one thing, hence, a specialization.

It’s said that spending 10,000 hours of deliberate practice on something can make one an expert. You can be a specialist at something, but maybe not have taken your specialty to this “expert” level.

There is an assumption that companies only want to hire specialists these days, but we’ll soon see this isn’t 100% accurate.

Next, the generalist comes in as the underdog. People assume that because they lack specialization, because they are “1,000 miles wide and an inch deep” that no one will hire them.

Not true.

They’ve done a million different things – and they can do a million different things. They are often the ones that people go to when there is a complex problem to be solved. In fact, since the world is faced with more and more complex problems, it makes sense that generalists – people who are able to draw from different areas of expertise and curiosity – would be the ones best suited to solve them.

Generalist vs. Specialist: Strengths of Each

When we look at the generalist vs. specialist, we see that both the generalist and the specialist each have their strengths and their “applications” in the workplace.

Obviously, a specialist is needed when there is a highly specialized skill that’s called for in the position. You wouldn’t want your cardiac surgeon to be a primary care doctor or even a general surgeon. You’d want her to have the specialized skills she needs before she gets to work.

Alternatively, there are creative and innovative jobs where it pays to be able to draw from a broad range of skills and ideas. Cross-functional teams are designed to get multiple perspectives and ideas, and if you’re someone who has had “cross-functional experience” you can bring that to a team.

As I mentioned above, in a world where the problems are increasingly complex, it is important to have a multi-dimensional view of the issue, and the solution.

What to do if You’re a Generalist

If you’re a generalist looking to get hired, and you’re suffering from the 1000 miles wide and inch deep problem, you have to show your future employer that you do have an area of specialty – your specialty is solving the problem that they need solved, and the way that you do that is by drawing on your diverse background.

Don’t worry that you don’t have expertise. There is still something you’re better at than other things – one sweet spot of something you’re good at and would like to do, that you could also get hired and paid for.

What to do if You’re a Specialist

If you’re a specialist and you want to get hired to do something different, you should focus on your transferable skills. It is likely that you will need to have a “leapfrog job” or volunteer experiences that can help bridge you from what you are doing now to what you want to do in the future.

If you’ve specialized in one thing – again, let’s use the surgeon example – and you want to do something entirely different, say go into human resources, it makes sense that you will have to retrain and start from scratch. However, if you aren’t up for that, there are ways to rely on the knowledge you’ve gained in your work so far, and apply it differently.

Specialist vs. Generalist – You Both Win!

Maybe it seems like I’m cheating when I call the generalist vs. specialist fight a draw, but it’s true. There’s no winner here, there’s simply different ways to handle a job or career change in each situation.

If you need help with your career situation, get in touch or sign up for my emails!

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