The Generalized Specialist: How Shakespeare, Da Vinci, and Kepler Excelled

“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…

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