In my industry I’ve found that you can be successful by committing to being a specialist or by committing not to specialize. People stumble, struggle, fail, or get burned out when they try to do both or can’t transition from one to another.
As people become more senior in their careers they naturally take on more and more responsibility, this is a great way of increasing influence and capabilities. Focusing on one thing and trying to learn that one thing better than anybody else is what a new employee will do to be exceptional at their job. This is also what it takes to be a pure specialist. As the employee excels at area they will gains new responsibilities. Dedicating the same level of focus to multiple items is difficult and pulls focus from specialization.
Fast forward in a career and if not careful this person will have many new disparate capabilities and responsibilities. It is not possible to know everything about everything. This is a good reminder for senior people to Delegate Then Do as I talked about in an earlier post.
Specialists know everything about a topic. These are the people you can go to that know the entire history, architecture, context, influence, news, and new and old components of a topic. These people are critical to the success of a project because they know things that other people simply don’t know.
I’ve seen specialists in every industry that defy the imagination. I used to love to listen to “Click and Clack” on Car Talk diagnose a caller’s question through a series of questions and making the caller try to replicate the noise by voice over the phone. They can do this because they’ve seen and heard thousands of other issues in cars, they have a lifetime of focused work to draw from. Ask them a question about computers or cooking and they’ll quickly fall down.
There’s also a lot of value in choosing the other path: the generalist. These people know a lot of things about a lot of things and can connect the dots across different areas. They know what they know and what they don’t know and even more importantly they know who to ask or where to find an answer when they don’t know the answer.
This requires a similar dedication to the specialist, but a dedication to knowing a lot of topics. It also requires a restraint not to go too deep on any single topic. A critical piece of the generalist is to know the strengths and weaknesses and capabilities of different areas. Is this a problem easily solved with AI? Is this something that could be turned into a product and marketed to a wide audience, or is this something that should be solved once and forgotten about? Is there an expert somewhere that can solve this task 10x faster than you?
It’s better to make a decision about the person you want to be early and dedicate to that than to find yourself burned out or down a path you don’t agree with.