How To Specialize Yourself Right Out Of A Job

Overspecialization helped bring on the housing crisis—so what can it do to your career?

Let us pause to praise the generalist.

For the past several decades, the specialist has held sway. Employers were told they needed people on board who did one thing and one thing well. In turn, career and business experts told us to brand ourselves, to make sure we were known for something in particular.

Don't be a generalist, a jack-of-all-trades, they advised. You'll confuse the people who would hire you. They won't value the skills you offer, like the ability to bring together facets of multiple disciplines. Instead, they'll view you as a dilettante, less than serious about your career and intellectual pursuits.

Seth Godin is a lead spokesman for this viewpoint, that lack of specialty is another word for second rate. "A woodpecker can tap twenty times on a thousand trees and get nowhere, but stay busy. Or he can tap twenty-thousand times on one tree and get dinner," Godin wrote in The Dip. "The next time you catch yourself being average when you feel like quitting, realize you have only two good choices: Quit or be exceptional," he continues. "Average is for losers."

Career specialization is default behavior. We become consumed by daily tasks. We become ever more dedicated to a particular pursuit. We're told it's the most efficient way to become better at our jobs. Will this guarantee success? Sure, if you play professional tennis.

But in the view of Carter Phipps, the author of Evolutionaries, we've made a terrible mistake. In his view, we've managed to specialize ourselves into a ditch.

Overspecialization has its victims: think of the unemployed factory workers and mortgage brokers trying to figure out what to do next. Think of the housing experts who did not realize that their economic models were wrong until it was way too late. We've been living with the results.

"Over the past decades, there has been a growing sense that the critical role that a generalist plays in society is being forgotten, with dangerous consequences for culture," Phipps recently wrote on The Huffington Post. "In discipline after discipline, experts have raised concerns that our knowledge base has privileged depth and detail over breadth and context."

We were not always like this. Until the twentieth century, an educated person was considered to be someone who could discourse intelligently and authoritatively on subjects ranging from science and politics to art and economics—you'd call a person well rounded, or even, on a rare occasion, a renaissance man.

This model shifted as a result of the fantastic advances in sciences over the course of the 20th century. It takes years of dedicated study to master the arcane but impossibly important points in the fields of neurology to physics. Academia demanded specialists.

In turn, the specialization mantra filtered through society, leading to an explosion of experts, be they authorities on the language of computer programming or 17th-century sonnets.

Facts, however, do not equal context. The information age has left many of us so overwhelmed with data, we can miss the bigger picture. We live in a cacophony of fact overload. As Phipps puts it, "We are data rich and meaning poor."

This is where the generalist can help out. The generalist is an idea surfer, riding the waves of various disciplines, synthesizing information to create a unique view of the world. She is polymorphous in thought and flexible in action. She is the person who can handle multiple demands. According to the research of University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Philip Tetlock, the multidisciplined are more likely to sense a general pattern, with the result that they are better at predicting outcomes—both good and bad—than supposed experts.

As the founder of Betterment, a financial services industry startup, I believe that a company needs both specialists and generalists to thrive. Many of my hires at Betterment are not just financial experts. Sure, many come from financial backgrounds but I want to hear the insights of well-rounded men and women who could make suggestions based on how people handled their money in real life, not recommendations from experts who believe they know how people should manage their funds.

I'm the first to admit that I probably would not get that far without bringing specialists on board. These people know how to exactly implement the information the generalist has pieced together from multiple sources. Yet I encourage everyone at Betterment to move beyond the boundaries of their specialty. Nimble startups require nimble minds.

Jon Stein is the founder and CEO of Betterment.

[Image: Flickr user Allan Foster]

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  • Daveyh

    The trade of Linotype mechanics springs to mind, no longer needed, but it gave a good background in mechanical engineering which helped many diversify.

  • Margaret

    Hilarious.  I am one of the much-maligned generalists. I've been looking for a full-time position since February 2010, with little success. That having been said, I do currently work 4+ part time and contract jobs, most without any benefits or job security whatsoever! This is what career sites call a "portfolio" career; this is what I call losing the race for personal fiscal solvency.

  • Maggie

    I have always been a generalist and felt discriminated againts when going for job interviews as people would say I'm a job hopper. To the contrary, I am figuring out what I really want to do in life. And it seems this is becoming a trend but still looked down upon my employers. It will take year's to shift this type of 'specialist' mindset.

  • Rajesh Gopal

    Interesting comments.....I think the need to specialize is being overemphasized by organizations. It is great to be a domain specialist as long as the domain is relevant, but my sense is that the roles we perform today and the skill sets that companies are paying top dollars today are likely to change dramatically in the next 10 to 15 years-some skill sets will become irrelevant!. I would much rather focus on being a professional who is hungry to learn and acquire skills in newer areas, rather than specialize myself to the point of becoming unemployable in the years to come!

  • Joshua Lundquist

    You shouldn't feel bad about not being a specialist.  My advice is first look up the word "multipotentialite" and then join the rest of us.  

    You don't have to specialize.  Read Barbara Sher's "Refuse to Choose".  Try Emilie Wapnick's Puttylike site.  Seriously, it really helped me figure some things out.

  • Joshua Lundquist

    I struggle with the very rigid, left-brain, overspecialist mode of thinking at my job in Japan. I work around IT guys and dudes with accounting / business / economics degrees who are skeptical of art and right-brain pursuits. Not that all left-brainers are specialists or that all specialists don't like art.

    Some of these guys I work with are like robots, so mentally sound and cooly logical. As if life were a chess game. They sit and talk about things alot, and seem to skate by because of their specalist qualities. I however am being given three tasks at once, as if not being a specialist somehow means you have three brains to 'multitask' with.

    I can see how specialization can lead people to never make a decision, because nothing is ever perfect enough.

    I'm not saying I am any better. I spent a good part of my life envying specialists, wishing that I had one thing I could do so well that people would look at me like I was a master. But I'm a multipotentialite.

  • Adele Zin

    The generalist is an idea surfer, riding the waves of various disciplines, synthesizing information to create a unique view of the world. She is polymorphous in thought and flexible in action. She is the person who can handle multiple demands. The multidisciplined are more likely to sense a general pattern, with the result that they are better at predicting outcomes--both good and bad--than supposed experts.

    -----Additionally, I think that a "generalist" can have multiple different areas of strength, for example: be talented in artistic performance and being detail oriented in areas such as operational management, technology and social media. The variety and different interests all end up complementing each other. We have to go back to the hunger for more education and the know how to step back and evaluate the big picture or else all of our high level specializations start to block out your vision and you are stuck in the box while everyone else has already moved on to the next thing lightyears outside of the box.

  • Stephanie Hilliard

    As one of those generalist "idea surfers" I often feel at a distinct disadvantage in a world full of specialists. It is nice to have someone say that generalists bring something of value to the workplace.

  • Alexandra Sheach

    I think you make a very salient point regarding what people actually do versus what the textbooks tell us they should do!

  • Srini

    I have never advocated the "Jack of all, master of none" philosophy. I rather believe in "Jack of many, BUT master of at least ONE".

  • K7Buoy

    You can be a MASTER of being a Jack-of-all-Trades.  It is harder than it seems.

  • Gaurav Kapil

    There is not a subtle but hell lot of difference between Specialist and a Generalist. What Seth Godin recommends is to do art work, not the volume of work. 

    I think author has good idea but arguments slamming specialists are just completely off the mark. 

  • Tarek El Badawy

    I'm a general dentist and I wouldn't do it any other way. it's much more fun for me to analyze the case as a whole, put a comprehensive Tx plan and start executing it while enjoying doing 1 thing different each day. It's always good to learn your best in high end procedures like Surgeries in general and Endo, Perio and Maxillofacial surgeries in specific. Prosthodontists are specialists yet they don't learn anything vastly different than the generalist. it's all about your passion, dedication and thriving to be better each day. Complicated cases that require a specialist's care will always be there and we value the multidisciplinary approach to give patient's the best care possible.

  • Christina Trapolino

    My takeaway from this thought-provoking prompt is this: it is important to be strategic and to be flexible.  Too much emphasis in either direction causes severe problems -- paralysis on one side, pure reactionary thinking on the other.  It seems to me that being a specialist who is flexible and able to understand the relationships between different skill sets and how they apply to business goals is better than being a specialist with a case of myopia.  
    I still think it's important for people to brand themselves, but the smartest professionals I've encountered tend to view their specialty as a tactic: their real value add to an organization is their ability to understand the needs of the business across the spectrum so that their specialty can provide maximum value.  Further, the best professionals I know are not "above" doing work outside of their comfort zone.  On the contrary, it is an opportunity to be embraced.

    Thanks for the insight, Jon!  I continue to follow your company with great interest.

  • wtpayne

    I wonder how much specialization is driven by demographic shifts. The number of educated, intellectually involved people is growing at a rapid rate. At the same time, the ability for people to communicate and share their knowledge is also increasing dramatically. All of this leads to a large quantitative shift in the amount of information and knowledge being generated and consumed.

    Quantity being a quality all of its own, such large quantitative changes are bound to be accompanied by qualitative shift in the way that we use that information; the way that we contribute to the debate; and the way that we do our jobs.Increased specialization is an obvious consequence of this (ongoing) demographic change, but not the only one. What it means to be a specialist (or even generalist) has changed also.I am convinced is that there is an increasing need for generalists and management professionals to be able to reason about issues at a level of fine detail that was not previously required or possible. Taking a broad-brush, 10,000 ft high approach, whilst still necessary, is no longer sufficient - we need to collectively sweat the details, because that, they say, is where the devil lies.