Why I think being a generalist is better than a specialist
If you had a choice, would you be a portfolio manager who knows a bit of every sector and ultimately make the final decision to allocate money, or would you be an equity analyst specializing in healthcare?
If I had a choice, I would rather choose the former.
There has been wide debates on whether being a generalist or a specialist is better for your career. The main benefit of being a generalist is that you know a wide range of things, but lack the depth. Likewise, the main benefit of being a specialist is that you are the expert in that field, but you probably know very little about other things.
In my opinion, I think being a generalist is better than a specialist and I share my thoughts below. You could have a differing opinion but that is okay. 🙂
Source: Harvard Business Review, survey conducted by two professors who studied records of ~400 students who graduated from top U.S. MBA programs.
A. You should not restrict yourself to one field right away. It is good to explore a range and see which one fits you best.
In a book titled Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, author David Epstein mentioned about Roger Federer (a professional athlete whom I greatly admire by the way), playing a ton of different sports from badminton, rugby, basketball, soccer, to skiing and skateboard, before focusing on tennis. He gave himself time to try out all sorts of different things just to see which one he is good at, and which one he had the most interest. Through this, he gained broad general skills and this proved useful for his formative years as he go on to become a top tennis player with 20 Grand Slam single titles, as compared to his peers who plateaued at lower levels.
This is relatable to your career as well. “Where do you see yourself in 5 years” is one of the most commonly asked questions by interviewers. Most people think that they need to KNOW exactly where they are in 5 years. However, truth to be told is that you may not fully know if you will like your job after 2 years.
Hence, it is okay to just have a general sense of direction of where you want to be, and be flexible and adjust along the way.
Take for example for myself, I started my first job in a trade support analyst role for a French commodities firm. I never knew that after my fifth job, I would end up doing sales in Private Equity. These are two very different sectors and job scope.
Source: YouTube user (WIZ TNNS)
B. Generalists are usually able to see the big picture and think out-of-the-box.
Simply because generalists have a wide range of skills and a set of tools to draw from, they are more likely to see the big picture and think out-of-the-box. They are also adaptable and are able to change their course of action as a situation evolves. Not everybody are able to deal with ambiguity to be honest.
Usually, these are skills that help you get noticed at work and makes you comfortable with the ever-changing work environment.
In an interview with one of Google’s top recruiters, she mentioned that Google are looking to hire smart generalists because if they just hire someone to do one specific job, very soon he or she will be obsolete because the company evolves rapidly. They are looking for someone who can do many jobs well.
C. To reach the top, you usually need a wide range of skills, expertise, and knowledge.
Most CEOs have been Heads of many departments in their company before rising to the top. Take for example my company’s CEO, he has been the Head of Risk Management, Head of Technology, Head of Sales, Head of Private Equity, before finally being the CEO.
This is because you need to know a bit of everything from running a company, managing risk, exploring technological advances, bringing in sales, before you can make critical or even split second decisions.
If you are only specialized in one field, it is difficult to progress beyond the top guy in that department.
Say for example if you need an expert coder, you do not to actually know how to code. You can just hire one. Let the smart people with the right expertise do the specialized job.
Hence, if you have just graduated and are trying out different fields, do not let anyone tell you that you need to know what you want to do in life. Such things are not determined based on a short period of time.
I came across an article from my university which featured a senior of mine. She had varied experiences in her CV which ultimately landed her a Private Wealth Management (PWM) job in Goldman. She also took a path less travelled by pursuing her passion in jazz singing for about 2 years. And when she decided to go back to the corporate world, she managed to join top firms like Morgan Stanley and UBS. This is proof that even if you take a break to pursue other interests, you does not lose your employability.
D. When you network with people, you must be able to talk about various topics, and being a generalist is better in this case.
The more well verse you are and the bigger range of topics that you know (eg current affairs, global markets, hobbies, sports, watches, wines etc.), the better you are able to connect with people.
For example, you go for a top US bank’s networking event and there are hundreds of other participants / undergraduates alongside you. You meet with an Executive Director and have only one chance to talk to him. What will you talk to him about? Where will the conversation be steered? Who knows, he may be an avid wine drinker and having some knowledge of wine can allow you to connect better with him, versus someone who don’t.
This can differentiate you versus the rest and could help you to open up a world of opportunities.
Also, knowing a broad range of topics allows you to see how seemingly unrelated events or developments may impact each other. This could give you insights that other people may not have. Hence, showing that you can provide a value.
E. You can complement skills from different disciplines
Lastly, skills picked up from one discipline can be transferred to another activity or task.
For example, it is not surprising to see many engineers by nature entering into the finance industry either being portfolio managers or equity analysts. I believe it is because their engineering course and degree taught them how to think and problem solve. All these skills are very valuable and can be transferred to a finance role.
Another unrelated example is that I was always interested in collecting watches. What started from collecting watches, and take care of them properly, to spotting a business opportunity and branching it out to watch care. And the main reason for this is because I felt that there are surely a group of people who loved taking good care of their leather bags, shoes etc, and watches will definitely be one of them.
Starting out a side business like this allowed me to learn things such as marketing, pricing, distribution, and negotiation and all these I believe to be very useful skills.
Of course the ideal scenario is to be a generalist, but yet having strong depth in various topics be it real estate or private equity, so that you can get ahead of your competition. But if that is not possible, I believe gaining broad general skills and knowledge would be important for the future.
So, if you had a choice, would you rather be a generalist or a specialist?
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