I’m a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. But I’m fine with that.
My career path wasn’t as linear as I expected and my view on the specialist vs generalist debate is somewhat biased. I consider myself a generalist. In fact, I even struggle with defining what I do or give myself a job title, but that’s ok and it should be ok for you too.
As humans, we are naturally inclined to have multiple interests and some of us turn those interests into a profession. Design in itself will draw you to different interests. If you have an appreciation for good design, then you most probably are interested in art? cars? watches? architecture? Having a creative mindset makes you constantly chase novel ideas — you are innately curious.
Being a generalist is often overlooked or not considered a skill. Here’s a quick exercise:
Think of another word for generalist.
Now think of another word for specialist.
What did you come up with? You probably can’t think of another word for generalist except for jack-of-all-trades, and you know how that phrase ends.
But for specialist you probably thought: expert, master, guru, virtuoso.
So which one sounds better? Naturally you would say specialist as it has more positive connotations to it. But here’s why I’m on the generalists’ side.
1. Improves the skill of learning
When you’re a generalist, you’re constantly learning new things and exploring new areas. You’re not just learning how to do things, but you’re also learning how to learn. The skill of learning doesn’t expire and it doesn’t need updating. You can easily apply it to the next skill in line.
You learn how to approach new things, how to ask the right questions, and how to find the information you need. This makes it easier for you to acquire new skills and knowledge, which is an important skill to have in today’s changing world — see below.
2. Makes you more adaptive to change
A generalist is more adaptive and being adaptive is extremely important, especially in an age where jobs, technology, and as a result societies are continuously evolving.
We have no idea what new jobs will be created ten years from now so widening your knowledge and skill set will improve your chances of being employable and relevant. This also builds resilience in you to face new challenges with an open mind and the confidence required to acquire any new skill.
3. Improves your problem-solving skills
When you’re a generalist it’s easy to note how certain skills overlap and what you acquire in one area can be easily adaptable to another.
Working in different disciplines means that you adopt different problem-solving skills especially if you’re part of different teams. The great thing about this is that most of the time, these skills can be carried over to different industries or situations and can actually give you a creative edge — using a problem-solving technique that is normally reserved for other industries.
Just look at the story of Gunpei Yokoi. Yokoi was a machine maintenance worker at Nintendo but is nowadays more famously known for his contribution to the Gameboy invention. He came up with the design philosophy “Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology” – which meant using cheap, readily available, well-understood components in interesting ways. He applied his engineering background to toy design and game consoles, two usually unrelated fields; at least until then.
Being a generalist will give you a head start when you’re going at it on your own.
4. Is especially useful if you’re starting your own business
When I look back at the start of my freelance practice or when I started Hangar, I can confidently say that this helped me a great deal in growing my client base. The majority of my projects involved work that was not tied to just design.
I started working with small businesses mainly and when a small business is run by one person, they don’t have the time to work with different service providers to design their visual identity, website, and product UX, for example. And they’re not going to look for a web developer either. But I could do it all for them! This was a strong differentiator from my competition. Clients would deal with one person and have everything done more efficiently in one place.
Being a generalist will give you a head start when you’re going at it on your own. It will save you time looking for service providers, going through different service agreements and building relationships. And of course, there’s the satisfaction of saying “I built this myself!” It may slow you down, but the knowledge acquired during those months is priceless.
5. Helps you communicate better with your team
This is especially useful when you start hiring a team for your own business or work in a large team structure. Operating different areas of your business helps you share first-hand knowledge with your team as your business is growing. Your mistakes are your team’s lessons.
This is also useful in cross-departmental communication. At least, in my case, I still find it very useful that I have a background in web development. This helps me communicate more efficiently with web developers and suggest solutions for how some design elements can be interpreted using code or at least their logic, even if I rarely touch code these days.
This doesn’t mean that everyone should be a generalist. The point is that being a generalist shouldn’t be seen as a negative trait. This is very personal after all, and not every personality is suited to juggle different skills during a given period. But if you’re the kind of person who is constantly itching to learn new skills or cross disciplines, you are naturally a generalist and it’s important to embrace this as it can be a strong differentiator in your work.
A word of caution though. Being a generalist also has its downsides, such as keeping up with multiple fields and the risk of spreading yourself too thin. Be prepared to accept the fact that you may not become an expert in any of the fields.
If you’re into podcasts, you might want to give this a listen: