“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Do you ever ask kids this question? Did adults ask you this when you were a kid?
Even if you managed to escape this question until high school, then by the time you got there, you were probably expected to be able to answer this question, if only to be able to choose a college and a major. Maybe you took aptitude tests, along with the standard academic tests, in high school. This is when the pressure to go down a path to a job commences. Increasingly, the education system seems to want to reduce the time it takes for us to become productive members of the work force, so instead of exploring more options, we are encouraged to start narrowing them.
Any field you go into, from finance to engineering, requires some degree of specialization. Once you land a job, the process of specialization only amplifies. You become a specialist in certain aspects of the organization you work for.
Then something happens. Maybe your specialty is no longer needed or gets replaced by technology. Or perhaps you get promoted. As you go up the ranks of the organization, your specialty becomes less and less important, and yet the tendency is to hold on to it longer and longer. If it’s the only subject or skill you know better than anything else, you tend to see it everywhere. Even where it doesn’t exist.
Every problem is a nail and you just happen to have a hammer.
Only this approach doesn’t work. Because you have no idea of the big ideas, you start making decisions that don’t take into account how the world really works. These decisions ripple outward, and you have to spend time correcting your mistakes. If you’re not careful about self-reflection, you won’t learn, and you’ll make one version of the same mistakes over and over.
Should we become specialists or polymaths? Is there a balance we should pursue?
There is no single answer.
The decision is personal. And most of the time we fail to see the life-changing implications of it. Whether we’re conscious of this or not, it’s also a decision we have to make and re-make over and over again. Every day, we have to decide where to invest our time — do we become better at what we do or learn something new?
If you can’t adapt, changes become threats instead of opportunities.
There is another way to think about this question, though.
Around 2700 years ago, the Greek poet Archilochus wrote: “the fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing.” In the 1950s, philosopher Isaiah Berlin used that sentence as the basis of his essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” In it, Berlin divides great thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs, who have one perspective on the world, and foxes, who have many different viewpoints. Although Berlin later claimed the essay was not intended to be serious, it has become a foundational part of thinking about the distinction between specialists and generalists.
Berlin wrote that “…there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system … in terms of which they understand, think and feel … and, on the other hand, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way.”
A generalist is a person who is a competent jack of all trades, with lots of divergent useful skills and capabilities. This is the handyman who can fix your boiler, unblock the drains, replace a door hinge, or paint a room. The general practitioner doctor whom you see for any minor health problem (and who refers you to a specialist for anything major). The psychologist who works with the media, publishes research papers, and teaches about a broad topic.
A specialist is someone with distinct knowledge and skills related to a single area. This is the cardiologist who spends their career treating and understanding heart conditions. The scientist who publishes and teaches about a specific protein for decades. The developer who works with a particular program.
In his original essay, Berlin writes that specialists “lead lives, perform acts and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal; their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects … seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all embracing … unitary inner vision.”
The generalist and the specialist are on the same continuum; there are degrees of specialization in a subject. There’s a difference between someone who specializes in teaching history and someone who specializes in teaching the history of the American Civil war, for example. Likewise, there is a spectrum for how generalized or specialized a certain skill is.
Some skills — like the ability to focus, to read critically, or to make rational decisions — are of universal value. Others are a little more specialized but can be used in many different careers. Examples of these skills would be design, project management, and fluency in a foreign language.
The distinction between generalization and specialization comes from biology. Species are referred to as either generalists or specialists, as with the hedgehog and the fox.
A generalist species can live in a range of environments, utilizing whatever resources are available. Often, these critters eat an omnivorous diet. Raccoons, mice, and cockroaches are generalists. They live all over the world and can eat almost anything. If a city is built in their habitat, then no problem; they can adapt.
A specialist species needs particular conditions to survive. In some cases, they are able to live only in a discrete area or eat a single food. Pandas are specialists, needing a diet of bamboo to survive. Specialist species can thrive if the conditions are correct. Otherwise, they are vulnerable to extinction.
A specialist who is outside of their circle of competence and doesn’t know it is incredibly dangerous.
The distinction between generalist and specialist species is useful as a point of comparison. Generalist animals (including humans) can be less efficient, yet they are less fragile amidst change. If you can’t adapt, changes become threats instead of opportunities.
While it’s not very glamorous to take career advice from a raccoon or a panda, we can learn something from them about the dilemmas we face. Do we want to be like a raccoon, able to survive anywhere, although never maximizing our potential in a single area? Or like a panda, unstoppable in the right context, but struggling in an inappropriate one?
Costs and Benefits
Generalists have the advantage of interdisciplinary knowledge, which fosters creativity and a firmer understanding of how the world works. They have a better overall perspective and can generally perform second-order thinking in a wider range of situations than the specialist can.
Generalists often possess transferable skills, allowing them to be flexible with their career choices and adapt to a changing world. They can do a different type of work and adapt to changes in the workplace. Gatekeepers tend to cause fewer problems for generalists than for specialists.
Managers and leaders are often generalists because they need a comprehensive perspective of their entire organization. And an increasing number of companies are choosing to have a core group of generalists on staff, and hire freelance specialists only when necessary.
The métiers at the lowest risk of automation in the future tend to be those which require a diverse, nuanced skill set. Construction vehicle operators, blue collar workers, therapists, dentists, and teachers included.
When their particular skills are in demand, specialists experience substantial upsides. The scarcity of their expertise means higher salaries, less competition, and more leverage. Nurses, doctors, programmers, and electricians are currently in high demand where I live, for instance.
Specialists get to be passionate about what they do — not in the usual “follow your passion!” way, but in the sense that they can go deep and derive the satisfaction that comes from expertise. Garrett Hardin offers his perspective on the value of specialists:
…we cannot do without experts. We accept this fact of life, but not without anxiety. There is much truth in the definition of the specialist as someone who “knows more and more about less and less.” But there is another side to the coin of expertise. A really great idea in science often has its birth as apparently no more than a particular answer to a narrow question; it is only later that it turns out that the ramifications of the answer reach out into the most surprising corners. What begins as knowledge about very little turns out to be wisdom about a great deal.
Hardin cites the development of probability theory as an example. When Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat sought to devise a means of dividing the stakes in an interrupted gambling game, their expertise created a theory with universal value.
The same goes for many mental models and unifying theories. Specialists come up with them, and generalists make use of them in surprising ways.
The downside is that specialists are vulnerable to change. Many specialist jobs are disappearing as technology changes. Stockbrokers, for example, face the possibility of replacement by AI in coming years. That doesn’t mean no one will hold those jobs, but demand will decrease. Many people will need to learn new work skills, and starting over in a new field will put them back decades. That’s a serious knock, both psychologically and financially.
Specialists are also subject to “‘man with a hammer” syndrome. Their area of expertise can become the lens they see everything through.
As Michael Mauboussin writes in Think Twice:
…people stuck in old habits of thinking are failing to use new means to gain insight into the problems they face. Knowing when to look beyond experts requires a totally fresh point of view and one that does not come naturally. To be sure, the future for experts is not all bleak. Experts retain an advantage in some crucial areas. The challenge is to know when and how to use them.
Understanding and staying within their circle of competence is even more important for specialists. A specialist who is outside of their circle of competence and doesn’t know it is incredibly dangerous.
Philip Tetlock performed an 18-year study to look at the quality of expert predictions. Could people who are considered specialists in a particular area forecast the future with greater accuracy than a generalist? Tetlock tracked 284 experts from a range of disciplines, recording the outcomes of 28,000 predictions.
The results were stark: predictions coming from generalist thinkers were more accurate. Experts who stuck to their specialized areas and ignored interdisciplinary knowledge faired worse. The specialists tended to be more confident in their erroneous predictions than the generalists. The specialists made definite assertions — which we know from probability theory to be a bad idea. It seems that generalists have an edge when it comes to Bayesian updating, recognizing probability distributions, and long-termism.
Organizations, industries, and the economy need both generalists and specialists. And when we lack the right balance, it creates problems. Millions of jobs remain unfilled, while millions of people lack employment. Many of the empty positions require specialized skills. Many of the unemployed have skills which are too general to fill those roles. We need a middle ground.
The Generalized Specialist
The economist, philosopher, and writer Henry Hazlitt sums up the dilemma:
In the modern world knowledge has been growing so fast and so enormously, in almost every field, that the probabilities are immensely against anybody, no matter how innately clever, being able to make a contribution in any one field unless he devotes all his time to it for years. If he tries to be the Rounded Universal Man, like Leonardo da Vinci, or to take all knowledge for his province, like Francis Bacon, he is most likely to become a mere dilettante and dabbler. But if he becomes too specialized, he is apt to become narrow and lopsided, ignorant on every subject but his own, and perhaps dull and sterile even on that because he lacks perspective and vision and has missed the cross-fertilization of ideas that can come from knowing something of other subjects.
What’s the safest option, the middle ground?
By many accounts, it’s being a specialist in one area, while retaining a few general iterative skills. That might sound like it goes against the idea of specialists and generalists being mutually exclusive, but it doesn’t.
A generalizing specialist has a core competency which they know a lot about. At the same time, they are always learning and have a working knowledge of other areas. While a generalist has roughly the same knowledge of multiple areas, a generalizing specialist has one deep area of expertise and a few shallow ones. We have the option of developing a core competency while building a base of interdisciplinary knowledge.
“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
As Tetlock’s research shows, for us to understand how the world works, it’s not enough to home in on one tiny area for decades. We need to pull ideas from everywhere, remaining open to having our minds changed, always looking for disconfirming evidence. Joseph Tussman put it this way: “If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.”
Many great thinkers are (or were) generalizing specialists.
Shakespeare specialized in writing plays, but his experiences as an actor, poet, and part owner of a theater company informed what he wrote. So did his knowledge of Latin, agriculture, and politics. Indeed, the earliest known reference to his work comes from a critic who accused him of being “an absolute Johannes factotum” (jack of all trades).
Leonardo Da Vinci was an infamous generalizing specialist. As well as the art he is best known for, Da Vinci dabbled in engineering, music, literature, mathematics, botany, and history. These areas informed his art — note, for example, the rigorous application of botany and mathematics in his paintings. Some scholars consider Da Vinci to be the first person to combine interdisciplinary knowledge in this way or to recognize that a person can branch out beyond their defining trade.
Johannes Kepler revolutionized our knowledge of planetary motion by combining physics and optics with his main focus, astronomy. Military strategist John Boyd designed aircraft and developed new tactics, using insights from divergent areas he studied, including thermodynamics and psychology. He could think in a different manner from his peers, who remained immersed in military knowledge for their entire careers.
Shakespeare, Da Vinci, Kepler, and Boyd excelled by branching out from their core competencies. These men knew how to learn fast, picking up the key ideas and then returning to their specialties. Unlike their forgotten peers, they didn’t continue studying one area past the point of diminishing returns; they got back to work — and the results were extraordinary.
Many people seem to do work which is unrelated to their area of study or their prior roles. But dig a little deeper and it’s often the case that knowledge from the past informs their present. Marcel Proust put it best: “the real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.”
Interdisciplinary knowledge is what allows us to see with new eyes.
When Charlie Munger was asked whether to become a polymath or a specialist at the 2017 shareholders meeting for the Daily Journal, his answer surprised a lot of people. Many expected the answer to be obvious. Of course, he would recommend that people become generalists. Only this is not what he said.
I don’t think operating over many disciplines, as I do, is a good idea for most people. I think it’s fun, that’s why I’ve done it. And I’m better at it than most people would be, and I don’t think I’m good at being the very best at handling differential equations. So, it’s been a wonderful path for me, but I think the correct path for everybody else is to specialize and get very good at something that society rewards, and then to get very efficient at doing it. But even if you do that, I think you should spend 10 to 20% of your time [on] trying to know all the big ideas in all the other disciplines. Otherwise … you’re like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. It’s not going to work very well. You have to know the big ideas in all the disciplines to be safe if you have a life lived outside a cave. But no, I think you don’t want to neglect your business as a dentist to think great thoughts about Proust.
In his comments, we can find the underlying approach most likely to yield exponential results: Specialize most of the time, but spend time understanding the broader ideas of the world.
This approach isn’t what most organizations and educational institutions provide. Branching out isn’t in many job descriptions or in many curricula. It’s a project we have to undertake ourselves, by reading a wide range of books, experimenting with different areas, and drawing ideas from each one.