Are You a Generalist or a Specialist When It Comes to Your Career?

During my last quarter of online college, I was taking a class called Socialization. Socialization is, in simple terms, the process of how we learn to behave and function within society. The class covered every developmental stage of a person, and how their family, peers and circumstances can affect their direction in life or how successful and happy they become. It was in some ways a life coaching class; our professor challenged us to analyze how we’ve been socialized throughout our own lives, and what kind of changes we could make in order to live a happier life and find our purpose. 

While we discussed a few types of socialization, one that really stood out to me was “random socialization.” In class, we learned that random socialization is when someone is lacking strong and stable reinforcement, such as a person whose parents aren’t really present and don’t encourage them to pursue their talents, or someone who lacks support from their peers, thus leading them through life somewhat randomly. In this case, the person fails to master any high-quality skills which then leads to few successes throughout their lives. Because of this, they’re deprived of feeling a sense of accomplishment; they lack direction, purpose, calling or motivation. If this sounds familiar, don’t worry. Random socialization can be turned around; as my professor said, you can “overcome the randomness” and one of the methods for doing so is by becoming a generalist

What is a generalist? 

A generalist is someone who is good at many things. It’s someone who branches out and finds multiple things they may be good at or passionate about, rather than one single thing they excel at. A well-rounded individual, you could say. This really spoke to me. Unlike many of my friends, I had zero idea what direction I wanted to take in life. There was never one thing in particular that stuck out to me, nothing that made me think, “Oh yeah, that’s exactly what I want to do.” I’ve always had many interests pulling me in random directions, which often made me feel aimless and question my identity. 

I can at least identify what I’m not interested in or skilled at. I’ve always been pulled towards creativity, writing and art rather than math, science or research, for example. I never ended up majoring in something I’m going to pursue as a career; unlike engineering majors who go on to become engineers, as a sociology major I have learned how to write great research papers, which is frankly something I hope to never do again. Within the breadth of creativity, there have been so many pathways that I’ve been drawn to that it gets overwhelming. Each one could take me down an entirely different road; lead me to an entirely different version of myself. How am I supposed to know which one is right?

I have felt like I should just decide on one thing and forget about the rest so I can have more direction. Part of me wants to be a writer and write a book one day. Part of me wants to be a full-time photographer and travel. Part of me wants to be a successful small business owner. Part of me wants to be an editor for a big magazine. Part of me wants to launch a successful Podcast with my best friend. The neat thing is, I’m good at all of the things I can see myself doing. I’m not a master in any way, but they are things that I have knowledge of and potential in, and I’ve realized that I’d rather have all these different interests, talents and ideas rather than none at all. Maybe it’s the combination and application of your many different skills rather than only pursuing one of your interests that produces the most success. 

payroll clerk counting money while sitting at table Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

The pros of being a generalist: 

  • You gain wisdom from experience in different fields

  • You gain knowledge in many areas 

  • It gives you a sense of purpose and identity 

  • You can maintain a feeling of novelty (always discovering new things, never getting bored)

Dipping your toes into a broad range of areas can help prepare you for whatever career you land in. You have a wide breadth of knowledge and a range of tools at your disposal, allowing you to adapt to unfamiliar situations, tackle issues that arise or come up with new creative solutions. There are many doors you can enter; you aren’t limited to just one. 

In terms of cons, you might feel like you’re always drifting. Blogger Sarah Bromley discusses some of the harsh realities she’s faced as a generalist while also touching on how it can be impactful. Maybe it’s hard to feel like you’re making a real impact when your expertise is broad, rather than specific. However, in a world where technology is starting to be able to solve more specific problems, maybe generalists with their “ability to look at problems from different perspectives, apply various disciplines and empathize with all kinds of people” are actually the future. 

On the other hand, we have specialists.

What is a specialist?

A specialist appears most often through “quality socialization,” or the kind of socialization in which parents strongly encourage success and discipline for their children in order for them to rise to their potential. This can include private lessons, such as piano or dance lessons, so they can gain the very best knowledge and practice consistently in order to hone their skills. Someone who takes piano lessons their whole life may end up becoming a famous pianist if they’re passionate enough and put in the work. This would make them a specialist or a master in piano. In simple terms, you’re really good at one thing; you have a goal of excellence and for reaching the highest level in that field. 

Specializing works well for situations in which a deeper knowledge and understanding of a topic is required. For example, developing a vaccine will require the knowledge of people who have specialized in medicine and chemistry; someone who majored in biochemistry but didn't go on to grad school or decided to try becoming an author won’t be their first choice in developing an effective vaccine that must protect every citizen of the world from a deadly virus. Building a spacecraft that won’t deteriorate once it leaves the Earth's atmosphere requires expert aerospace engineers who have been studying, practicing and gaining extensive knowledge in the subject their entire lives. They live and breathe their expertise and will get the job done better than someone who doesn’t specialize in that subject. These kinds of people are essential in solving specific and urgent problems the world faces. 

Woman looking into a microscope Photo by Edward Jenner from Pexels

The pros of being a specialist: 

  • You gain deep understanding in one area

  • You become a master of the subject 

  • People may look up to you as inspiration 

  • You’ll have a sense of great accomplishment

In terms of cons, specialist careers can be quite fragile because there’s a higher risk of failure (if you’re only good at one thing, but fail to improve at it, it makes it hard to find something else to pursue). If this occurs, fewer options are available to you. There may also be more pressure to be perfect at what you do, whether that’s pressure coming from yourself or the people around you. It’s important that whatever you’re doing is giving you a sense of purpose; otherwise it might be time to try something else. 

Which one am I, and which one is better? 

I’m sure that while reading this, you resonated more strongly with one over the other. If you feel like you’re talented in many different things, love learning about something new or starting new hobbies, and there isn’t one singular career path that calls to you, then you’re most likely a generalist. On the other hand, if you’ve been really talented in one area your whole life — whether it be art, sports, music, math — and you can see yourself excelling at it for a long time, then you might be a specialist. 

Neither of these is better than the other. It really depends on what kind of career you picture yourself having. Maybe, as a generalist, the thought of working a 9-to-5 in an office without much flexibility or novelty from day to day doesn’t sound ideal to you. You might thrive better in a creative environment, one in which one day looks different from the next, or maybe you’d enjoy working for yourself and creating your own structure. As a specialist, you may need strict discipline in order to make sure you’re improving your skills and reaching specific goals, such as an athlete hoping to compete in the Olympics one day. 

Either way, there is no wrong answer. You can build a successful career and life for yourself no matter if you’re a jack-of-all-trades or a grand master. It’s easy to let the pressures of society lead you one way or another, but just remember — no one knows what’s best for you more than yourself. Don’t feel ashamed for not having a thing. You can have many things and still be successful. Likewise, don’t feel guilty for becoming a master chess player but having no other interests. If it’s making you happy, keep it up. Hold on to whatever gives you a sense of purpose and identity and you’re already on a path to success.