I see so many people trying to figure out their “title” in the work place or your new business.
You see them testing stuff out, changing their Linked In “title” or email footer.
I’ve done it. Gosh, I still do it!
Figuring out what it is that you actually do – identifying your unique “thing” without pigeon-holing your self into some generic professional title and leaving out the rest.
A wide and very diverse range of skills and talents and interests – how do you pick just one, when you don’t want to pick just one?
Turns out, you may not actually be a Specialist in any thing…and that’s totally OK.
And if you are, you may want to re-think that. Or maybe not.
What The Heck Is A Generalist?
After playing around with this dilemma, for let’s face it…years now, it’s grown tiring.
Just a couple of days ago I was reading a book “The Power of Myth” by Joseph Campbell. If you don’t know him, he is what I would consider one of the greatest experts in mythology in the 20th Century. He has a wide range of writings which have influenced a great number of people in his lifetime.
The point being, the realisation I had, had very little to do with mythology.
Here was a man, who I consider to be an “expert” of “specialist” in his field of mythology, and I guess, ancient wisdom… proclaiming, in so many words…
‘specialization tends to limit the field of problems that the specialist is concerned with…So the generalist – gets into a range of other problems that are more genuinely human, you might say, than specifically cultural.’ (Campbell 1988, p. 9)
What I got from it, for me, was…
I am not a specialist. I am a generalist. I look at all the pieces of the puzzle, from all different perspectives, and figure out the right pieces and how they go together…as opposed to picking out one path and just following it until I know every thing about that.
You could say, that a generalist pulls back and looks at the big picture. They take a “birds-eye” view of things and understand what’s going on from a wide perspective.
In the workplace, they are more likely to be a project manager who understands all the pieces of a project.
Zoom out even more, and they’re a department manager, knowing all the different projects, their status and how they go together – at a high level, without delving into the detail…there are other people for that.
Zoom out one more time, and you have the CEO, the girl at the top, who may not be aware of any of the projects going on beyond a line item on a report. But, they understand the different departments, their status, and how they go together.
- Tend to have a broad range of skills across a range of disciplines within their field.
- Are able to thrive in a wide variety of environmental conditions and is able to make use of different resources.
Specialists on the other hand, delve straight into the detail. They know all the intricacies and minute, specific pieces of information about a particular subject or topic.
Specialists are the worker bees on the project.
They are the girls or guys working on the pieces of the project. Fixing that line of code in a computer problem. Designing the lobby reception desk in the new office headquarters.
Invest time and effort in becoming the “go-to” person in a particular niche.
Can thrive only in a narrow range of environmental conditions.
Like a ballerina. They specialise in their dance – they don’t mix it up with hip-hop or hockey.
Which Is Better?
Generalists would say Generalists. Specialists would say Specialists.
It’s really a matter of perspective.
The problem is that if you are right at the end of either spectrum you totally lose touch.
The CEO who stays off the factory floor and has no idea how their business is actually done, will eventually make decisions that are completely incongruent with the Specialists they employ.
The Specialist on the factory floor who is so into their “Specialist” that they insist on doing things only one way, without considering how that interacts with other parts of the process, will, eventually create problems.
The simple answer is…
You Need To Be Both
You need to be able to zoom in and out of the big picture and the detail – to oscillate between them and understand how they fit together.
Even if it’s for a very short time.
As a Specialist, come out of the detail to see how it fits into the big picture.
As a Generalist, zoom into the detail to ensure it’s actually aligned with the big picture, the vision, the strategy.
Why Generalists ARE Actually Specialists After All
As a Generalist you will explore a broad range of skills and knowledge across a number of disciplines.
As you evolve, and start to see patterns and how things go together, you’ll start to see particular areas of interest.
You’ll start to develop skills and knowledge about particular things.
Regardless of whether this is at the level of CEO or working on a factory line, you’re a Specialist at something – it’s just wither in the detail or the big picture.
Just like our expert in mythology.
His interests started very broadly, but as the pieces came together, he started to become an expert and a ”go-to” person, a Specialist, in the field of Mythology. He may not be a Specialist in a particular Greek Goddess, or Balinese od form a particular village (if that’s how it works), but at the next level up, he is a Specialist in how these things all work together.
Sometimes, you have to be a Generalist first, for a while, to figure out your Specialty.
In Your New Business
The overwhelming number of freelancers are Specialists. They’re people who companies hire in for short periods of time to fix a particular problem, or deliver a particular scope of work.
Their skill set is not necessarily something that’s needed on a full-time basis, but it’s needed.
In your business, you might already see an opportunity for freelancing your area of Specialty – that thing you just love and that you know people need.
Alternatively, you may need to generalise, go big, and explore for a while, before you figure out exactly what your “thing” it. Give it some time.
Either way, it’s perfectly OK.
Whether you’re a Specialist or a Generalist, the world still needs you all.
Just let it take its course.
Campbell, J 1988, The Power of Myth, Apostrophe S Productions Inc., United States of America.
National Gallery of Victoria, 2016, Degas: a New Masterpiece, Melbourne Winter Masterpieces, Exhibition. Finishing the arabesque 1877). Photograph by Liz Watt.
National Gallery of Victoria, 2016, Degas: a New Masterpiece, Melbourne Winter Masterpieces, Exhibition. (Group of dancers (red skirt) c.1985-1900) Photograph by Liz Watt