Are you a generalist or a specialist?

“A lot of things knows the fox, but the hedgehog knows one and the big one.” Archilochus, Greek poet.

Since the Renaissance, when the multifaceted (generalists) and Leonardo Da Vinci flourished, there has been a debate in the working world on the advantages and disadvantages of generalists and specialists.

During the Industrial Revolution, workers began to adapt to the technological changes of the moment. These workers must specialize in a specific task throughout the workday. In my opinion, and unlike cataloging these factories employees as generalists, I think that these workers were specialists from a basic level. Although they never study the theories and technical details of their duties, I believe they achieved a specialty by the number of hours they devoted to such work. But to agree or disagree with the use of these terms, let us consult the definitions of the Royal Academy of Language

– Generalist: According to the definition of the Royal Academy of Language, is a person in his profession dominates a wide field of knowledge.

– Specialist: According to the definition of the Royal Academy of Language, is a person who cultivates a particular industry or practice of an art or science.

Width and depth

To understand a little better the difference between the two, we can speak of width and depth, as far as knowledge is concerned. While a generalist usually covers a wide range of skills (think of a general practitioner), a specialist focuses on something specific, deepening as possible (a neurologist, for example).

At the time of the Industrial Revolution, most employees specialized basic form in the factories, as lawyers, engineers and scientists took their specialization as deeply as they could. science, literature, philosophy, music, etc.: Only in elite universities then, some privileged pleased to learn about many subjects were given (What it is now called Letters or Humanities), without specializing in a specific field. That is to say, were generalists.

Comes the internet …

As the twentieth century closed with the arrival of a new wave of technology (the internet), companies began to recruit a new generation of skilled workers could develop all these software tools and hardware.

To monitor all these specialists, people familiar with the workings of the company were required, without the need to specialize in any specific area. Therefore, generalists and specialists coexisted in the business world. But from the beginning of the century, the concept of generalist has lost strength. Some experts believe that the value of general began to lose strength when most jobs were no longer for life. Today, workers change jobs every few years and seems not to require the presence of supervisors without any specialization.

Specialists are gaining

Today, it seems to be valued more an expert or specialist in a specific field (Java developers, computer engineers, etc.) than a generalist, or of all trades and expert in anything. Many experts in the workplace, as Lynda Gratton, advocate the loss of importance of general in the near future.

There is room for both

From my point of view, I think both can occupy important places in the labor market. While it is true that companies want specialists to occupy the vast majority of jobs, and that these organizations need trained people to add value immediately, many of the people who founded these companies are generalists by nature. Or at least, a mixture of both.

For example, to occupy a position of engineer, scientist, mathematician, lawyer or economist, a high level of preparation (at least a university degree) and years of experience (rule of 10,000 hours of practice to be considered an expert) is required.

But to occupy executive positions or high administrative level, not always should hire these specialists or experts, as they tend to see everything from a too limited to implement a strategic vision of the organization view. Generalists are noted for their adaptability to new environments, an ability to connect knowledge of several different fields.

And in the future …

Perhaps the nearest future will smile more specialists, by technological advances of our time and the continuous search for highly qualified personnel in fields such as engineering and science. They recommend them to learn a bit of general (but learn a little something goes against your nature). They could learn to expand their horizons, as the field in which they have specialized could disappear or become devalued by the use of robots and other technologies.

And the general, facing a brighter future, they might choose to dig a little deeper in some of its areas of interest. That way, they could add more value to their work, and not have to rely so heavily on the work of specialists.

I leave you with an excerpt from Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox”, in which one can distinguish the two types of thinkers, general (foxes or foxes) and specialists (hedgehogs)

A lot of things knows the fox, but the hedgehog knows one and the big “The formula, according to Isaiah Berlin, can serve to distinguish two kinds of thinkers, artists, human beings in general. Those with a central vision, systemized , life, ordering principle in terms of which make sense and historical events and giblets individual events, the individual and society are assembled, and those with a dispersed and multiple vision of reality and men, which not part of what exists in a coherent order explanation or they perceive the world as a complex diversity in which, although the facts or phenomena enjoy particular meaning and coherence, the whole is tumultuous, contradictory, ungraspable “.

Source: “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin, 1953