The Downside of Specialization
30 July 2009
“Jack of all trades, master of none, is oftentimes better than master of one.” – Proverb
Currently, career advisors advocate specializing as much as possible – the more narrow the specialty, the better. Don’t just become a doctor – become a surgeon who specializes in doing 12-hour pancreas removal operations. Don’t just become an accountant – become an accountant who only handles 403(b) plan audits for non-profits. Don’t just become a physicist – become a physicist who studies Higgs Bosons, which requires a $4.2 billion laboratory to study.
Specialization does have its advantages – if what you do is in high demand, you can work as much as you want and charge a high price. However, deep specialization has downsides that must be taken seriously.
Change Is The Enemy
Specialization only works if things don’t change – and things always change. The more you focus on developing any single skill, the less time you have to develop other skills that can help you in the event things in your environment change unfavorably.
A person who only knows how to do one thing exceptionally well is on solid ground for as long as that skill is in high demand, but if the environment changes to make that skill unnecessary or undesirable, they’ll have more trouble adjusting to the new situation. The very best high-rise architect in the world is screwed if no one wants to build skyscrapers anymore.
Many of the people most effected by the current recession are specialists – if you only know how to do one thing well, it’s hard to get another job if no one needs your current specialty, and if you decide to re-train yourself, you’ll have to deal with the disadvantage of competing with people who are already more flexible than you are.
Flexibility and Resilience
In contrast, a generalist is less optimized, but more resilient – having a variety of skills that can be used in combination is highly valuable due to the increased flexibility those skills provide.
Resilience is never optimally efficient – you may be investing in resources you’ll never need, but in the event you do need them, it’s better to have them available than not. Think of the human body: you have two of a lot of things – eyes, lungs, kidneys, etc. You’re capable of functioning with only one of each, but having a backup allows you to survive situations that would otherwise kill you.
The same principle applies to building new skills. Sure, you may not need a particular skill in your current position, but developing that skill opens up options you otherwise wouldn’t have. Jacks (and Jills) of all trades can do just as well as specialists by taking full advantage of their flexibility and command of complementary skills.
T-Shaped People Perform Best
In order to maximize your performance and flexibility, it’s useful to adopt two complementary strategies: (1) work on developing deep expertise in your primary field to increase your value, and (2) learn about as many different things has possible to increase your flexibility. Tim Brown, founder of IDEO, calls this " becoming a T-shaped person ":
“We look for people who are so inquisitive about the world that they’re willing to try to do what you do. We call them “T-shaped people.” They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T — they’re mechanical engineers or industrial designers. But they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well. They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need. That’s what you’re after at this point — patterns that yield ideas."
Here’s an example of how I’ve personally applied this strategy: I got my first job out of college because I had three complementary skills, each of which I originally developed in isolation: (1) setting up websites, (2) creating graphics in Photoshop, and (3) developing different scenarios to test. That particular set of skills made me a good fit for developing a new customer relationship / direct response program, since I had skills the other members of the team hadn’t developed. In the meantime, I worked on developing my business skills via reading the books that later became the Personal MBA.
The business and marketing skills I learned in my first job came in handy for job #2 (creating new home cleaning products) and #3 (developing marketing materials to actually sell those products). Job #4 came about because I could combine those skills with my understanding of how to measure what people actually do on websites, which I learned over time by watching what people do when they visit this site.
Now that I work on my own, I use all of these skills every day – my knowledge of how businesses work goes very deep, but the skills I use to do my work are very wide. Personally, that fits me to a “T.”
Develop Your Core Human Skills
The skills I discussed in the Core Human Skills post are the skills that will maximize your flexibility, regardless of your area of specialty. If you’re skilled at learning new things, writing clearly, speaking, using mathematics, making good decisions, gaining allies, resolving conflicts, creating scenarios, planning ahead, etc, there’s very little you won’t be able to accomplish if you put your mind to it. That’s what the books on the Personal MBA Recommended Reading List are designed to do, and that’s what I’ll be writing about in my upcoming book.
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