How should you look at a world of generalists versus specialists

The other day I took one of those personality tests. The results were an abbreviation of a few letters. I didn’t know what they meant. So, naturally, I asked a psychologist friend for its meaning. She gave me a detailed answer. On learning that the test was recommended by a non-psychologist, she said, ‘These non-psychology people should stay out of psychology.’ It wasn’t the first time I’d heard of this sentiment from a professional, any professional at that.

This got me thinking about the difference in jobs. And it comes down to one common factor, an entry barrier. Why do some jobs have a massive entry barrier, and why others don’t? And why are some professionals defensive about their jobs and others welcoming? What does this mean for the future of jobs?

Jobs, work, or whatever we refer to as “means to earn money” is rapidly changing. No longer is it making money dependent on becoming a ‘professional’ with a real skill like saving a life or building a bridge. Jobs are more to answer the question — can you make something happen? Whether it’s providing a solution or retaining attention. You can set up a YouTube channel reviewing gadgets, watching sports, or even reacting to funny things. As long as you create the all-encompassing word that seems to include everything, “value.”

What this means is the nature of jobs and work, in general, is evolving. And if we don’t recognise it and change our attitude, we’re going to be left behind. This is my attempt at recognising it.

Generalists versus specialists

In the book Range, author David Epstein studies the duality of the generalists versus the specialists. It’s no surprise, the book’s subtitle reads, “Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. ”

The book analysed the lives of many successful athletes, entrepreneurs, and chess masters and how they achieved success. One thing that stood out was they tried a range of different things before they found what they were good at. These were in the vicinity of their eventual field.

For instance, Roger Federer played several sports before he made tennis his own. Gunpei Yokoi, a developer of the original Nintendo, toyed with many kids’ toys before hitting on the idea of a handheld gaming device, the GameBoy.

The success stories came after a trial and error process of experimentation. These people tried their hand at several things — sports, business, technology, or games, before realising what they want. Epstein says a range of disparate fields gave them a new perspective.

What’s happening now is similar. No longer is work one-dimensional or one track dependant. People are learning several different skills on the job, and even moving across roles to understand them better. From my own anecdotal experiences, I’ve seen friends who’ve moved from institutional finance to ed-tech, engineering to growth and marketing, corporate journalism to crypto content making, financial auditing to apparel manufacturing, banking to public policy, company governance to web design, and more.

During this observation between seemingly unrelated fields, including my own, there was a stark difference. Some people are in a single lane, set to become specialists in their fields. Epstein compares this to Tiger Woods, the legendary golfer, who began golfing at the age of two. Others are generalists, with a baseline knowledge in several fields. Nothing to write home about, but enough to make a living.

Building blocks versus building bridges

The world needs both generalists and specialists. There is no one winner between them. A hyper specialsied physicist, doctor, or accountant is essential to the world. They provide fundamental breakthroughs within their respective field, without which generalists can’t build on them further.

Specialists provide building blocks, but generalists build for the general population. Both groups are important, but in this time, generalists are creating more marginal value. I define marginal value as the additional value over any existing value that people pay a higher price for. This makes more money than the cost to produce it. Generalists are creating marginal value from the specialists’ existing value, and thereby providing more value.

Think of the laptop. It was created by a group of incredibly smart engineers i.e. specialists. But, generalists are using the laptop to game, write, design, market, and sell interesting content. This marginal value (content) is derived from the existing value (the laptop). And in some cases, the marginal value is even more valuable than the existing value.

I don’t mean to belittle the contribution of specialists to the world today. What they’re doing is maximising the reach of value creation. But it will take years for this ‘marginal maximisation’ to seep down to the general population, where it’ll actually make a difference. Generalists, on the other hand, are giving immediate value to the masses. The difference is profound.

Next, there’s the question of proficiency. Being a specialist in one field is difficult. The market is too large to break through. Hence, in order to create value, people have to either be supremely talented and better than the market. Or narrow down to a specific market, serving a specific need. The chances of success are different if you’re in ‘neurosurgery’ versus ‘neurosurgery of the left synaptic nerve under cases of severe stress caused by post-traumatic disorder after 9/11.’ These are just made-up terms, but you get the idea.

Generalists, by definition, are not proficient. They are average in several fields, but it’s the combination of the fields that make them a specialist. And this combination starts with two things — a subject area, and a means of distribution. Let’s say you’re really good at making videos on personal finance. Personal finance is your subject matter, and videos are the distribution model. There are money managers who know more about personal finance, and there are videographers who know how to take stellar shots. You’re average at both, but provide more marginal value than the money manager and the videographer combined. This is how the generalist triumphs.

Going beyond the subject matter and distribution approach. You can be more specific. You can trim personal finance to personal finance for college students in India, and videos to short videos on Instagram. Your market is smaller, but and the competition is reduced. This is a simple approach used by influencers — pick a niche, dominate, and expand. Another way generalists triumph.

Naval Ravikant calls this “specific knowledge.” A domain of knowledge that few people, like you, know about. How can you leverage this to earn money and create something better than anyone else? I think the generalists already have.

Internet, foundation, and mindset

The division between generalists and specialists has always existed. But it’s been brought to the fore in the past decade or so.

This just may be my anecdotal experience, but only in recent times have people liberally moved from one disparate field to another. This is happening due to a number of economic and social factors. At the helm of it all is the internet.

The internet allowed people to do three things at scale — learn, work, and earn. People can learn anything they want without going to school. People can work from anywhere without immediate supervision. People can provide a service to US customers and earn money in India. This has decreased dependence on a single income and increased exposure to multiple disciples with an air of freedom.

Another important factor in this evolution is foundational services. In the earlier days of the internet, companies focused on one service had to build other ancillary services. For instance, an e-commerce toys company had to build a website, distribution model, payment interface, and more from scratch. This reduced scalability. Now, foundational resources like Amazon Web Services for cloud storage, Shopify for e-commerce distribution, and PayPal for payments make setting up a business easier. The tools required to start a freelance service are also plenty, think Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook for content distribution, YouTube for video distribution, Substack for mail distribution.

There is also a shift in the mindset of people, especially here in India. The average graduate knows there is less scope to differentiate by excelling in one domain and more scope to differentiate by surviving in many domains simultaneously. It’s quite literally quantity over quality. And with the sheer competition and number of India’s youth, differentiation is key.

In my opinion, these three factors — internet, services, and mindset, in addition to several more, have made generalists realise their importance. And, whether we like it or not, this is changing the workplace.

Some get it wrong, how do we identify them?

The working title for this blog read, “Find this in the company you want to work for.” And now I’m rethinking this statement. I initially wanted to go at this with a ‘pro-generalists’ approach for companies at least.

But now that I think about it, specialists even in early-stage companies are crucial. You need a pure tech person, a marketing pro, or a design lead to getting the vertical started. A person who walks the line just won’t do. As Nitin Kamath said, without his CTO Kailash Nath’s focus on improving tech, Zerodha would never have become India’s largest brokerage.

That said, I want to walk back my initial bias of being a generalist in the ‘do everything’ world of startups. However, in any type of company you join (or build), there will be a few early red flags that frays too much into generalisation or specialisation.

First, proof of education over proof of work. Companies often hire people because of the school or university they went to. It is seen as a mark of knowledge and speaks to the quality of the candidate. While this is true for some, it fails as a filter for many candidates. This is especially true in a fast-paced environment, where pre-existing experience is required over pre-existing knowledge.

Second, entry barriers. Many companies place entry barriers to prevent new folks from joining the ranks. This is meant as a separation rather than a barometer of competence. If a company provides too many entry barriers like a work experience of ‘x’ years, expertise in niche disciplines or tools, or even a specific degree (worse from a specific institution), they are likely wilfully pushing an entry barrier. Based on this red flag, a simple but fairly blanketed and close-ended takeaway is — if a company has too many entry barriers for the nonspecialised, avoid it.

Third, unnecessary hierarchy. Companies are built top-down, and the top is generally very heavy. This creates a hierarchy of supervisors and bosses. There is nothing wrong with this, in fact, a necessary hierarchy for large organisations helps more than it hurts. It’s when hierarchy becomes top-heavy and causes bottlenecks when it becomes a problem. When a person is fixated that something must “go through him” as a form of “approval” or “permission” without any value added, it’s a problem. These kinds of people want to feed their ego, have a sense of authority, and contribute without adding any value. If a company is fixated on value-less hierarchy, avoid them.

All it comes down to is the question of trust. Trust in work over education, trust in experience, trust in a co-worker’s work. If a company does not divide tasks and trust the person executing it, work will be prolonged, or worse, it will fail. This magnified many-fold will not help a company’s future. In a fast-paced environment of a start-up where tasks are plenty and diverse, trust comes with a premium.

These red flags can be found in several organisations. But it’s most likely found in companies that are dominated by either generalists or specialists. In a company where everyone is doing everything, when the need comes to hire a specialist, these concerns creep up. “We want one from the top university.” “Only those with five years of work ex can join us.” “You will have to report to this person every day with progress reports.” “I need to be aware of what you’re doing every morning.”

Similarly, in a company with everyone doing something specialised, their way of work is almost set in stone. It’s unchangeable, and even for efficiency’s sake, it cannot be changed. “We’ve always done things this way.” “This is the platform we use and have always used.” “Don’t execute it this way, use my approach.”

In my opinion, companies that will flourish in the future will be a mix of those with both generalists and specialists. Although, I’d still say mass generalistion will be much more effective than niche specialisation. But the key of it all will be the ability to crossover. Skills have to be imparted to newbies, scaled across people, bettered through trial and error, in order for their resulting work to reach the masses. If a company is bogged down by “only one kind of person can do the work,” it will ultimately fail.

My advice? (even though you didn’t ask for it). Find (or start) a company with high trust, low entry barriers, and a mix of specialists and generalists.

Good luck!

You can buy a copy of Range by David Epstein here.

Writing as opposed to keeping the thoughts locked in my head.