Specialist vs. Generalist

Humanity seems to have a love affair with specialization, yet curiously almost all specialists work for generalists. Do you assume bosses makes more because they are worth more? Do you think specialists make the breakthroughs that change the world? Are both points of view correct? Can a person be both?

Here is a completely admittedly non-comprehensive set of perspectives. You might say why do I want to read anything that is not comprehensive? I counter with when was the last time you had the time to read anything that was? And in an Internet Knowledge Age would it even be possible anyway? So get used to smaller snippets and hopefully choose ones with insights.

Qualifying this Perspective 

After attending school full time until the age of twenty-seven, then working for several more decades, I have achieved some measure of expertise as technical specialist at Bose, Apple and DARPA.  Primarily I have had a professional life functioning at the intersection of innovation, physics, engineering, sound and music. Additionally having founded technology companies and the Silicon Valley Innovation Institute, I became a generalist managing specialists. Having been a college dean, department chair and faculty member, I found in academia many people end up playing both roles. Simply living several decades exposes one to large numbers of both.


The bottom line is one must collaborate, for none can be specialists in everything, nor manage everything we are involved with at the same time. From time to time we run into people who think they can, an excellent reason to believe in karmic payback.

In no particular order are some unintended ramifications of our general worshipping and rewarding of specialists and specialization.

1) There is no one (but you) to integrate all of the independent streams of information flowing into situations. Take for example medicine. Have you, or a loved one spent any time dealing with an ongoing medical condition, especially if it involved a hospital. In this case you become the generalist attempting to converge the specialists but you are not their boss so your results may vary.

2) Generalists run everything. All businesses, all nations, everything! Imagine a college student majoring in a difficult rigorous field where more people dropped out than graduated. What happened to those who did not make the grade? Some changed their majors to managment and become supervisors of those who did not.  Sometimes it even work!

3) More information is published about every field than any individual can ever digest. This sometimes forces people to narrow their attention to a “reductio absurdum” level, where they can know everything about nothing.

One potential solution floated is called the T-shaped Person, one who is deep in a field (specialist) and wide but shallow in many others. These people respect both the specialist and the generalist, for they are both.

In our Internet Age of “there is an app for that” where we can just Google or You Tube anything and everything – it has become easier to learn to address more topics than ever before.  Marketing people who develop messages selling us on concepts, that we need neither expertise nor executive assistants are at least partially right – everyone can do more. 

What do you think?