Thoughts On Being A Generalist

by Nate Croft

There's been some talk lately about the benefits of being a generalist versus being a specialist. The idea being that you are more valuable as a generalist working at a certain level of skill, as opposed to a specialist in a particular realm of endeavor. And in some ways I can see that. I mean, if I wanted to hire someone to work at FortySeven Media, I'd be pretty drawn to the person who could do it all.

So, why do we want a person who can do it all anyway? For companies, it means a smaller team. And that smaller team can mean bigger profits and agility. It is a very tempting proposition. For individuals, it means you are more valuable as a potential hire or contractor.

To an extent, even Jon and I have run with this thinking, and for the most part, it's been good to us. However, I'm finding out that it might not be the best thing in the long run. Let's have a look the cost of being a skilled generalist.

1. Time

Many of of us have heard of Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule (from Outliers) where he offers that real success comes not primarily from natural ability, but from working on your craft for an average of 10,000 hours. From personal experience, and from observing the lives and careers of those around me, I'd say he's on to something solid there. The more time invested, the skill grows.

It's not hard to find my point here. Multiple fields means our time is divided. That effectively multiplies the time it takes to achieve mastery. Notice I didn't say proficiency. That's the realm the generalist has to constantly navigate. Multiple proficiencies versus mastery in fewer things.

2. The Cost of Proficiency

Working as long as we have in the web, I can't think of a time when things have advanced faster than they are right now. Literally every day something new and amazing and likely work changing is released onto the web for us all to learn, play with, change, iterate upon, and otherwise make more awesome.

However, it comes at a heavy price. The pressure to stay on top of all this is unimaginably high. In many ways I feel quite badly for all the design students who come looking for work. We have to tell them that the last 4 or 5 years they have spent on a degree isn't enough and is really only the tip of the iceberg.

It takes it's toll on us veterans as well. I recently read “A Non-Graceful Shutdown” by Christopher Murphy and it is a terrible but eerily familiar tale in our industry. I recommend reading it. I'll wait.

That restless pace of innovation drives an even greater demand to stay on top of it all. As generalists, we feel this pressure many times over.

3. Pride

This is a tough one. We all want to be proud of our work. To be recognized for it, and to take satisfaction in it. Although, if we could all be perfectly honest, pride is a player in much of our sharing and public work. If you think it isn't, just see how many “Like, Tweet This, etc.” buttons with counters are on all of our websites.

The trouble is that we like it this way. One person can now do more than ever before and as such, we don't make room for the contributions and skills of others. We tell ourselves, “I want to stay true to my vision” and other such things. But as someone who has created a lot of work over the years, I can tell you, most of my best work is that which I worked on with others. Websites, music, photography. All of it. Sure, I may not need someone else, but the work is almost always better.

Simplification

Having personally operated as a generalist for so long, I find that it is burning me out. There are too many things that are “generally good” rather than amazing. Nothing gets my full attention and I hate that.

I need to think about fewer things and give those things the best I have. I need to make room for others, to allow them to shine and earn a living doing what they are good at.

I don't know if I'll ever be able to operate in just one skill set, but finding that thing that I can and should master has never been more appealing.

How do you approach this? Which do you want to be?

Photo by Flavijus

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August 23, 2013

Business, Personal

Comments

  1. I honestly found myself nodding through a great deal of this entry. I think a lot of us who have been in the web industry for a long time simply grew with the times and wore the multiple hats required to accomplish the jobs at hand. But as things grew more complex - so did the pressure to stay on top of diverging fields of study. Lately I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be a Front End Developer, programmer, responsive designer, SEO guru, social media expert, or marketer . Makes me tired just thinking about it all.

    I think you’re ultimately right - we have to simplify and focus on one thing if we ever truly want to master it. Otherwise burn out is certain to occur, likely sooner than later at the pace things are moving right now.

    I guess the one question the remains, at least in my mind is this. Which of the multitude of tasks you’ve been ‘generally’ doing is the one to select as your specialty? Personally, I’ve come to love marketing more than coding & developing in many aspects, but it’s a bit daunting to think about putting all the proverbial eggs in one basket.

    Maybe selecting the topic you love & enjoy the most is the best way to go… if nothing else, I figure whatever you are most passionate about tends to always be a good choice in the end.

    Great blog post!

  2. This is a subject I think about a lot as I’m trekking through my 30’s, no longer a peppy little all-nighter-loving 20 something. While I can still keep up with most of what is needed, I wonder what life is going to be like in my industry as I turn the corner into my 40’s and 50’s… will I still be able to keep up with all of the latest technologies?

    I think the answer is no if I am to remain only a generalist (in many of the fields that John Derrick above mentioned). Of course, who knows what the future brings, and I couldn’t have even guessed I’d be where I am today even five years ago, but I think the overarching lesson is to figure out sooner than later that trying to master a wide variety of skills is not sustainable nor a key to long-term success. Of course it is helpful to be proficient in a wide variety as you mentioned, but mastering all of them is going to be an eternal high-speed treadmill.

    Great post, I love reading honest reflections like these (It’s a good balance to ‘Top 10 CSS animations that blah blah blah’)

  3. I struggle with this very thing - a lot. Very similarly to everything that Ryan said above.

    Do I learn more about front-end development, do I spend personal time improving my design skills, do I learn more PHP to ease reliance on 3rd party EE addons. Am I still going to be building stuff in 10 years time? Are websites going to exist as we know them in that time? Are my skills still relevant? Am I going to have enough client work to keep me busy as I get older.

    Good to see I’m not the only one who struggles with these questions.

  4. I have to agree to an extent. I think the border between a generalist and a specialist can be pretty blurry. Especially in web development becoming a “generalist” is just going to happen if you keep on working with different clients and technologies. We all have some specialities we are better with and some skills that are not (yet) as much developed. But what I agree 100% with is that it is important to think carefully about what skill you should try to learn vs. the amount of time you will actually spend on using it.

    Regarding the rapid advances in web technology: of course the amount of speed in development in the web area can seem overwhelming, but is that actually due to the fact that the web is really evolving so fast or are we just overcomplicating things? A lot of development now goes into creating multiple versions of information platforms for a variety of platforms. I think technology should enable us to make things easier and not more complicated. And that is where a good plan and design approach will always come in handy, that actually can make the development of new websites and the likes easier.

    When I see the vast amount of tools we have to our disposal now I think the main quest now is to just focus on a certain gameplan and not to get distracted by all the new stuff constantly. Of course I have to adept to new technologies but a good website from five years ago is still a good website now in a lot of cases.

  5. Great, great post. It’s something that I hit (hard) earlier this year and has prompted some slow but purposeful changes in the direction of my business. Part of it was purely due to my not even enjoying some aspects of my “generalist” role, but the other part was feeling like I was spreading myself too thin.

    Thanks for the honest look at this!

  6. @John
    I’d go with the one you love. Love makes joy out of work.

    @Ryan
    I can totally relate. I can keep up with what I need, but the advances are becoming harder and harder to stay on top of.

    @Steven
    The future is strange place to consider from here. I guess we’ll just keep going and figure it out as it comes.

    @Nils
    I think you’ve nailed it, there has to be a streamlining of tools and processes. Other wise there’s no time for work for keeping up with the tools!

    @Angie
    We are hitting that same wall and are really looking at the way we work and hoping to simplify things to bring the joy and excellence back up to our standards.

    Thanks for speaking up, everyone. You all are a great encouragement to me.

  7. I’ve been thinking about this for years.  Personally its served me better to be more of a “generalist” when it comes down to providing value to the companies I’ve worked for, whether they be a company I was employed at or a client.  The “generalist” roles will always be more appealing to smaller companies.

    Jared Spool made a good point about “specialists” when he said, “The thing with specialists is that specialists can only survive when an economy can support it.” 

    I believe I’ll always lean toward being more of a generalist so that I can keep a wide net on our industry but at the same time specialize, to a degree, in one or two things.

    I’ve also written about my journey to becoming a generalist - https://medium.com/p/c1f41f6f1981

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  9. Like everyone else has said, I can also relate with being a generalist.  Th e point I would like to make is that the problem with being a ‘generalist’ is that nothing makes me stand out, despite being great from everything from network administration to Photoshop to front end and back end skills.  Anything that I need to get done, I seem to always get done by myself, but it just takes longer.  I find that I usually get hired by small businesses that actually need a generalist, because they can’t afford to pay a team of specialists.  On the other hand, that also usually translates into having a small budget to pay me too, as well as other related hardware and software needs, etc.  I’d like to have the recognition of working for a Google or a Disney, but that’s never going to happen as a ‘generalist’, because they want specialists.  So some guy who is just good at JavaScript or only Photoshop can make a salary twice mine, and they don’t know 1/100 as much. It’s frustrating.  My solution is to cut out as many of the ‘extra’ skills as needed to allow for enough excellence in one in-demand field, in order to make myself ‘shine’ and set myself apart. This way, my other skill sets are a big bonus to any employer that the other specialists don’t have.



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