For decades, the specialist has reigned supreme as the professional profile to beat. Search any job board, and you'll find posting after posting looking for someone with mastery in one singular skillset. It’s easy to see why. In a pre-internet society, we needed expert researchers to be our Google, expert operators to be our Zapier, expert GMs to be our Amazon.
The world is changing, and that change is accelerating the profiles that are becoming most valuable to our professional societies.
In recent years, following the release of David Epstein’s 2019 book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, those who own the title “generalist” as a key qualifier of their personal and professional identities are on the rise. While once a term that implied someone is directionless and unskilled, our culture is now embracing the generalist as a valuable profile.
But what are the clear distinctions between specialists and generalists? We’re learning that there isn’t a line that cleanly divides the two profiles. Similar to the way we now think about gender, specialists and generalists fall not into binary buckets or strict scale, but rather onto a spectrum.
The specialist profile is the profile most championed by professional working culture. This professional is marked by an unwavering commitment to a single domain or function of expertise. Knowing everything they can about a particular area and function, they often rise through the career ranks with their persistence categorization and are essential to others with their deep expertise.
Specialists have a breadth of experience and depth of knowledge within one key area, having learned both by thinking and doing within this scope. This is where most of the non career-changing generations find professional solace, and where we’ve found a world of workers siloed into. Almost any time you see a position on a job board without the term "generalist" in the title, it's a position geared towards specialists.
You may have heard of a “T-shaped” professional. This idea was first concepted by McKinsey & Company in the 1980’s, then popularized by IDEO in the 1990’s. In short, this professional is deep in one key discipline, but has a keen understanding of all other disciplines within an organization. This level of understanding allows for them to be a better cross-functional communicator, and create a system within their discipline that works in a complimentary way to other disciplines.
These types of jobs are considered to be “generalists,” like “HR Generalist” or “Marketing Generalist.” For example, a Marketing Generalist may own all of the specialties within their function, but manage specialists within their domain (brand marketer, growth marketer, content creator, etc). A Marketing Generalist would have an understanding of sales, customer support, product, and operations as well as marketing.
Generalized specialists are sometimes considered creative visionaries, able to connect dots far beyond their scope with the depth in a key area that makes them specialized enough to allow them to be unstoppable.
What happens when you’re not just an expert in one key area, but when you have experience in multiple areas deep enough to be dangerous? Enter the specialized generalist.
This “expert generalist” has in-depth knowledge across multiple areas, with still further surface-level knowledge in more. You can consider these shapeshifters M-shaped, with the ability to functionally own the entire domain with the ease of an expert, and jump into another area if needed.
Specialized generalists often have areas of expertise that are complementary, those that they’ve naturally had cross-functional relationships with from the network connections of the organization. This profile is the rarest of unicorns, one who specializes in being a generalist and the intersections between.
Generalists are multi-potentialites, multi-hyphenates, multi-passionate. Beyond a few key areas of exploration, generalists find themselves most empowered by variety, discovery, and newness. They’re able to heavily lean into soft-skills to achieve professional success and career continuity, being given opportunities because of their willingness to give their hands and hearts to wherever they’re needed and being brave enough to be the newbie.
After decades of working in positions where we have been forced to specialize, it feels good to get the professional “okay” to not be so rigid with our careers and lives. We’re taking a cultural exhale now, recognizing that there is beauty and benefit in a less linear path.
Now however, there is a marked shift towards individuals pushing themselves to be generalists. As the pendulum swings from one side to the other, this too is a mistake. A world full of generalists is just as challenged as a world full of specialists; it’s the homogeneity that’s stifling our professional culture.
If, rather, we can use profiles and take the time for self-exploration on where we as individuals fall onto this spectrum, we’ll more easily find our place within the organizations we love, find the jobs that we’re hoping for, and build the lives most naturally suited to how we show up in the world.
If you haven't already, take our quiz and find out which profile you are — 90's magazine-style.