Some people have described the current age as one of specialization or even hyperspecialization. However, a contrary stream of thought has been gaining ground in recent ideas, and that’s the idea there’s value in becoming a generalist. So what’s the difference between a specialist and a generalist?
Specialists have deep knowledge, skills, and experience in a given area. The best and most in-demand specialists make an effort to keep up with the latest knowledge in their chosen field.
In contrast, generalists are those who have a variety of experience and expertise, and these people might be described as multifaceted. So why might becoming a generalist make you happier and more successful in your career?
Gain a Unique Advantage
As a generalist, your multidimensional knowledge could help you gain a unique advantage over others. For example, you might be applying for a role that requires you to wear a few different hats. If you know how to code and have strong marketing skills as well, you could win the job over someone who has expertise in only one of the two areas.
That’s why being a generalist could mean you’re better at combining different areas of expertise. You could be more innovative and creative, making links and connecting the dots that others can’t. If you can leverage this varied knowledge in a concrete way for your employer or your own business, you could improve your chances of becoming a leader, achieve greater career satisfaction, and success at the same time.
Finally, in a more challenging economic climate when organizations are cutting back their hires, generalists can win over specialists as businesses try to do more with less.
Learning New Skills keeps your Brain Healthy and Mentally Sharp
Broadening your skillset into other fields by learning new skills can stimulate your brain and keep you mentally sharp. Reading and learning are associated with lower stress and it could even offset the cognitive decline. Staying curious and being open to learning new things can make you more engaged and engaging — both socially and professionally.
Acquiring new skills could be as simple as doing casual research or pursuing an online course at your own pace, or it could be a bigger commitment like spending a few years on a degree.
Beyond staying mentally stimulated, the benefits of upskilling can include greater earning potential and future-proofing you for economic and technological disruption. Automation, AI, and the strong demand for coding and related technology skills could mean it’s necessary to learn new skills to avoid obsolescence.
Developing Transferable Skills
Becoming a generalist means you’ll have transferable skills. Transferable skills are competencies that can be used in different roles and organizations, and they help you gain an advantage over other job seekers.
Top transferable skills include project management, multitasking, communication, leadership, analytical and conceptual thinking, technological proficiency, creativity, and teamwork. These skills give you a solid foundation for the hard or technical skills that also qualify you for the role.
Sometimes you might have already demonstrated these skills in previous roles but not be aware of it. Spend some time considering specific examples of when you utilized these skills to deliver specific outcomes in previous roles.
If you have an area for improvement in your transferable skill set, you could take a focused course in the area or sign up for clubs that support your development in the area. An obvious example is joining Toastmasters to further refine your public speaking and communication skills,
More freedom and options in changing careers
Becoming a generalist can give you more freedom and options when it comes to changing careers. You’ll likely have a strong suite of transferable skills. In addition, as a generalist, you’ll have two or more fields of expertise or semi-expertise.
For example, you might be a highly experienced accountant, real estate agent, or software developer in addition to having a proven track record of line management and mentoring junior staff.
When the opportunity arises, you might find your ground-level insights combined with your management skills set you up well for a career shift into other occupations or sectors like executive coaching or recruitment.
Allows you to discover new passions and interests
Becoming a generalist is a great excuse to discover new interests and passions. Perhaps you’ve thought about taking a course but always put it off because it seemed “impractical.” Whether it’s a short course in fashion design, coding, Photoshop, cooking, a new language, or something else, consider a field that’s always interested you – even if it’s just as a side-hustle.
Studies show following a passion can lower stress and boost overall happiness. This can happen especially if you get into a zone where you’re so happy about what you’re doing you lose track of time.
If you don’t have something you’re passionate about, you could start by considering one or two specific skills you’d be interested in and that would help in your field. Getting out of your comfort zone, taking a course, and dedicating time and effort to acquiring the skill can refresh your sense of meaning when it comes to your work and give you a rewarding feeling of accomplishment at the same time.
Even if you don’t end up directly applying your newly acquired video-editing skills or graphics design competencies in your career, you might have discovered a new hobby that stimulates your mind and helps relieve stress.
Discovering the generalist in you
Research from the Harvard Business Review suggests generalists tend to do well in industries that experience a relatively slower pace of change. However, both specialists and generalists can enjoy career satisfaction and success. It could come down to discovering which one you are or want to be.
If you’re a specialist, expanding your horizons by studying an additional discipline could keep you mentally stimulated and make you even more employable. On the other hand, if you’re a generalist, knowing how to leverage your diverse knowledge and experience in your chosen industry is key.