Specializing VS Generalizing

Some of the comments in my last article about generalizing skills, brought up the dilemma many people face when building skills. Should you become a jack of all trades but master of none, or become wickedly proficient at one skill without involving yourself in others? There are a lot of different ways to look at this problem, each offering different answers.

If you look at the area of your life, it doesn’t make sense to specialize. What is the point of becoming extremely good in your financial life if your health, relationships or spirituality are in the dumps? Balance across all areas of your life is essential, so specialization here doesn’t really work.

Looking through the lens of business advice, I’ve heard a lot of strong support for becoming highly specialized. If you are getting heart surgery you want the doctor that is an expert in heart surgery, not someone who knows a little about surgery, a little about carpentry and a little about accounting. Specialization in business or career focuses is very important.

In a world with other people, specializing in a particular field gives you skills that are marketable. Becoming an expert gives you a level of skill few people have. From this high level of skill you can use it to help others and earn a living. Specialization is a key aspect that makes our economic and societal system work.

The model I’ve found best to help remedy the dilemma of specialization versus generalization is the “T” model. Through this model your aim is to have a moderate amount of skill in a broad range of areas (the top of the ‘T’) and to have a lot of skill in a select few fields (the column of the ‘T’). Hat tip to Ben Casnocha for pointing me to this idea.

You should specialize in areas that you can use to help others. Become an expert in a field that is greatly demanded by other people. If your expertise isn’t needed by other people, then it is a wasted talent. It may have a lot of personal value to yourself, but if it doesn’t have any social value to others it can’t really help you.

Skills you need to have some general aptitude within are core skills. Self-discipline, communication and courage. Some skills you might want a small amount of skill just to augment your specialty. Steve Pavlina became a successful personal development author because he augmented his online business skills with his personal development skills.

If you are young, like myself, you may not yet have mastery in any areas. I’ve decided to pick out the skills that I want to specialize in and those that I only want to have a general understanding. By forming a T you can maintain inner balance in your life while becoming wickedly proficient in contributing back to society.

So should you specialize or generalize? The answer is both. Pick a field you have some talent in that is needed by others and specialize in it. All the areas of your life that can’t be delegated you should maintain a small threshold of skill to get you by. Skills take a lot of resources to build, so you can’t be a master at everything, but if you choose wisely you can become skilled at enough.

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  • Aaron M. Potts

    Scott,

    Great way to break down a major issue into a simple solution. I really like this part: “If your expertise isn’t needed by other people, then it is a wasted talent.”

    I am a FIRM advocate of people only doing things that they WANT to do. However, the trick to making money by doing what you want to do is to find a way to translate that thing into a product or a service that people will actually pay for.

    Otherwise, you are just spinning your wheels.

  • Scott Young

    Aaron,

    The key is to find both, not either/or. You need to find the area where your talents and desires mesh with others needs.

  • Todd

    Hey Scott,

    I really like your article and idea. The only thing that i think it kink of seems to miss is inter-related skills. There are plenty of them that would really support each other without sacrificing either.

    I guess that’s sort of out there a bit, but just a thought. =D

    -Todd

  • Scott Young

    Todd,

    Some skills do help each other, but the point of the article is that you need to use the T model simply because it takes too long and too much energy to have a high degree of skill in everything. You will end up having several skills that you have mastery of and a lot of skills with just a basic coverage.

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