Generalist vs. Specialist: Choosing a Path for Career Success

A grid of tiles of the same color representing a specialist, and a grid of different-color tiles that form an image of a flower representing a generalist.

Have you ever wondered: should I be more of a generalist or a specialist? David Epstein, bestselling author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World and The Sports Gene, shares his research and insights on why generalists have the advantage over specialists in today’s workplace.

Here are six takeaways from our conversation with David on the Creative Confidence Podcast. Listen to the full episode to hear David talk about the differences between generalists and specialists, why a generalist approach helps with problem solving, and the value of being a generalist in a shifting professional landscape. 

 

Listen on Spotify or Apple Podcasts

 

1. Specialists get a head start, but generalists typically surpass them later on.

“Those who go on to the highest level tend to progress a little more slowly earlier in their career because they’re sacrificing a head start to get this broader exposure and toolbox.” — David Epstein

When you think of athletes, you might imagine very focused and specific development programs, with a lot of repetition and optimization. However, many at the elite level in fact adopted more of a generalist approach. Roger Federer, for example, didn’t grow up only playing tennis—he spent time with volleyball, handball, skateboarding, and basketball. David’s research has shown that many top athletes, Nobel laureates, and other successful individuals started with unstructured exploration and learning that gave them a wider toolkit of skills.

 

2. Being a generalist encourages you to flex different muscles.

“No matter who we are, we need to face a diversity of challenges that forces us to create more general skills that we can then take and apply to new problems.” — David Epstein

Across all kinds of fields, seeking out a mix of new things rather than repeating the same things can lead to more long-term success. In a study from a few years ago with middle school math classrooms, there were randomized groups where some students got blocked practice (repeating one type of problem before moving on to the next one) and others got mixed practice (problem types in a random order). While the mixed practice group was more frustrated and progressed more slowly, they learned to match strategies to problems and ended up performing much better on the test.

 

3. Generalists can sample their interests and find the right fit.

“A broader sampling period teaches you about your own interests and abilities, so that you can find a fit with who you are.” — David Epstein

Even for those who end up very specialized, there’s often an early sampling period that is key to moving you closer to the path that fits your interests and abilities. You might try snowboarding, swimming, and soccer before you decide that you enjoy snowboarding most. Then, you might realize that you like the snow, but skiing is a better fit than snowboarding. You may eventually experiment with different types of skiing, from cross country to backcountry. It’s that sampling process that allows you to home in on what you could dive deeper into. Later on, a broader toolbox also gives you an ability to pivot more easily.

 

4. Generalists have a broader toolbox for problem solving.

“When you have a broader toolbox, you’re able to identify the deeper structure of a problem before you just dive in and try to execute.” — David Epstein

Solving a complex problem requires understanding the deeper structure behind it—and with this, generalists have the edge. David points to research at Northwestern University, where students were given different types of problems across domains, from biology to engineering. The students did well when problems were from their major, but poorly when they were from outside their major. The exception was with students who were in a special program with many minors instead of one major. These students were better able to figure out how to approach problems and solve things that were unfamiliar to them.

 

5. Generalists who focus on their narrative can be stronger applicants.

“How you tell your narrative—as a series of pivots, based on the things that you’ve learned—can take something that might look like a liability and turn it into a massive asset.” — David Epstein

As part of the final selection committee for a foundation that gives scholarships to military veterans for career development, David has seen firsthand how generalists can come out ahead in a competitive application process. He sees applicants who seem all over the place, who have taken unconventional paths and zigzagged in many different directions. The people with these scattered resumes often end up either on the top or the bottom of the scoring—depending on how they tell their narrative. When people explain why they’ve made specific pivots on their journey based on their learned experience, rather than avoiding or downplaying it, they tend to be more compelling applicants than those with more straightforward trajectories.

 

6. A broader set of skills can help you be more adaptable throughout your career.

“I don't think there’s a silver bullet for future-proofing your career, generalist or specialist. But having breadth can be especially critical when things are moving quickly.” — David Epstein

Oftentimes, being a generalist can allow you to pivot and stay resilient through change. When you don’t know what’s next, having a broader range of skills to pull from is a benefit. One study looked at those who had a career focused education and those who had a broader education across a dozen countries. While the people who had the career focused education were more likely to get hired immediately after and started with a higher income, their growth rates were slower and less adaptable over time. Additionally, when there were shocks to their industry, they would more frequently end up either going backward in their career or being out of work for a significant period of time. When it comes to generalists and specialists, there’s often a tradeoff between the long-term and short-term. 


Find details on the studies mentioned above and lots more compelling research in David’s book Range.

 

About The Speaker

David Epstein, New York Times Bestselling Author of Range

David is the author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World and The Sports Gene. Previously, he was the host of Slate‘s popular “How To!” podcast, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, and a science and investigative reporter at ProPublica. David has also worked as an ecology researcher in the Arctic, studied geology and astronomy while residing in the Sonoran Desert, and blithely signed up to work on the D-deck of a seismic research vessel shortly after it had been attacked by pirates.


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