Seth Godin is one of my favorite writers, but I have to take exception to his latest post called We specialize in everything:
When choice is limited, I want a generalist. When selection is difficult, a jack of all trades is just fine.
But whenever possible, please bring me a brilliant specialist.
If you’re shaking your head in agreement with this obvious point, then the question is: tell me again why you’re a generalist?
He later added a coda suggesting the idea of specializing in being a generalist, but sticks to his guns that “My point is that you never call on these people [generalists] when there’s a better specialist available.”
As somebody who has branded himself as an unrepentant generalist, I have to respond from my admittedly biased viewpoint.
I actually agree to some extent with Godin’s point. As The Only Sustainable Edge points out, specialization drives greater achievement in a given field, as monomaniacs achieve a level of focus that dabblers can not. Specialization also implies that only those who are truly passionate about a field will commit to the field and become the best in the world at what they do.
I think the flaw in Godin’s argument is revealed in his second paragraph: “If I need an animator, I can find the world’s best animator.” Here’s the subtle point: how do you know that you need an animator? That seems like a trivial question, but it gets to the heart of why generalists matter. Once you have defined the problem, and scoped it, and figured out exactly what skill set you need to solve your problem, then of course you’d hire the best person you can find with that skill set.
Specialists only know how to attack problems in one way – that’s part of specializing. To be the best at what they do, they have to ignore other ways of approaching the world and shut out other perspectives. A specialist is the proverbial hammer treating every problem as a nail.
So when you have a problem, how do you determine which specialist to use? Each specialist will tell you their skill set is the right one to solve the problem, because if they didn’t believe in the power of their specialization, they wouldn’t be a specialist. You need a generalist, somebody who can evaluate the problem from multiple perspectives. and who can ensure that the specialists picked will fix the real problem rather than a symptom.
The other absolutely vital role for generalists is in communication. Specialists see the world from their perspective, so for them to communicate with other specialists requires a generalist who knows enough of each specialization and its jargon to be able to translate between the worlds. This is a role that I have been very successful in filling at all of my different companies, especially on the interdisciplinary team of CellKey, where we had physicists, biologists, engineers and software developers all working together on the same product. Without a generalist, you have specialists talking past each other, and their effort is wasted because you can’t get them all working together and speaking the same language.
Maybe this is what Godin meant when he suggested one could specialize as a generalist, but I think that his post overestimates the value of skill alone, and underestimates the social difficulties of selecting and aligning specialists. The problems of language alignment and of picking the right team of specialists are where generalists provide value in a way that specialists can’t, precisely because they’re specialists.