December 08, 2015

Generalist vs Specialist: Which is Better?

In the age old debate, generalist vs specialist, which is better?

A few weeks ago, I went to an after work design event. It was billed as an intro to design in my new city, but it quickly became clear that it was more of an advice for wet-behind-the-ears-designers kind of evening… but there were free snacks, it was cold outside, and I’d hauled my butt there – so I might was well sit still and wait for a useful tidbit or two.

If you’ve ever been to one of these, you’ve been to them all. Like me, you could probably have written the script… “Studio or in-house?” “How do I build a portfolio?” “How do I get my first job?” … you get the idea.

I was happily drinking my free wine and checking my e-mail when someone asked, “Should I be a specialist or a generalist?”

“Specialist!” The panel unilaterally replied. “Find what you’re good at, and passionate about, and stick with it until you’re an expert”… and then they moved on.


To be fair, these panelists were… my age. We’re talking about folks who’ve done well in their field and did so at relatively young ages, meaning that, more or less, the first thing they tried to do was something they were good at and they liked - and they were rewarded with stature and respect in their field – everyone’s dream.

So based on their experience, they were giving good advice. And I mean sure, if you have one little corner of the world where all your happy lives, by all means go there! Figure out a way to make money off of it! That’s great advice!

However, that wasn’t what happened for me, and I’d wager it isn’t what happens to most people.

Being told my whole life to just “find what makes me happy” felt like an awful lot of pressure, especially as I was leaving high school and still hadn’t found anything where I could just sit for hours and find some magical flow.

I had to learn the very painful lesson that, if you can’t find your niche, you can’t force it. Which is why I no longer dissect fruit flies for a living, or make organic tea-towels, or … well read my last post.

And it wasn’t even that painful for me! Imagine if I’d gotten my PhD! Or MD/PhD (my ridiculous parent-pleasing plan at 18!).

Generalist vs Specialist: Generalists as Leaders

So this rant was simmering in the back of my mind a couple of weeks later as I interviewed one of the partners at my current agency. He’s a word guy and shared a lot of ideas really well, but one thing that he said really stuck in my brain.

“Now, there’s people better than me here - doing what I used to do - which is even cooler!”

And as I walked home later that day I thought - yes that is cool... but how cool is it that this guy sees that and celebrates someone else surpassing him! That’s a skill - a totally separate skill from being able to write well.

And that he’s built this awesome company where these new copywriters can shine – that takes a completely different set of skills. And that he’s fostered these wonderful partnerships with the other owners of the agency – that takes a whole lot of skill.

It occurred to me, that there are some serious benefits to being a generalist vs specialist. It’s not just the default state until you find your specialty. The person who always writes the perfect headline probably isn’t the same guy who can conceptualize the whole campaign. Neither is she the one who can run the company, or see who started the company in the first place.

Generalist vs Specialist: Greater Context

A generalist has a better understanding of the greater context, is able to see the connections specialists don’t, and is able to break ground and clear the way so specialists can shine.

Basically I just wanted to give every newly graduated designer (or really any new graduate anywhere) a hug and say don’t worry – it’s ok if you don’t live to kern or have a deep passion for 18th century typography, you’re still relevant as a designer and can do things that those crazy specialists can’t! You can see the big picture, bring completely disparate skill sets to the table and put the puzzle pieces together in a crazy new way. You’re just as good!

And if my 18-year-old self happened to be in that group – that’d be ok too.

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