I recently hit something of a personal milestone: I read my 5,000th “Better to Be An Expert In One Thing” self-help blog post.
It was quite an achievement and I’m very proud.
These sorts of posts – this sort of thinking – is all over the web. The thinking goes that by gaining deep knowledge in one niche area you’re setting yourself up for success more solidly than by dabbling in a number of different fields or areas. That sort of expertise, the writers and gurus tell you, makes you more marketable and attractive to those looking to fill positions because you can go deep and really wow them with your knowledge.
It makes sense. Especially if you’ve spent any substantial amount of time looking for work and wondering why you never get a call or other response, it can seem alluring to really drill down into one niche. There have been so many stories in the last year about how job listings are becoming more and more refined as employers and recruiters get ridiculously-granular with the qualifications *necessary* for the job, to the point where they’re looking for people with five years of experience with a tool that’s only been around for two. Anyone who doesn’t use all 10 buzzwords they’re searching for won’t even be considered.
Similarly, those starting out in their careers may be encouraged to pick a very specific lane and stay there, learning as much as they can and becoming an indispensable resource on a particular topic. Eager to prove themselves, they take that to heart and dive fully into a topic. It’s a natural inclination, particularly coming out of college, where such hyper-focus is encouraged.
In my experience this sort of direction might lead to short-term success. An individual with this sort of laser-focus will quickly get the attention of superiors, who turn to them for troubleshooting and guidance on a particular issue. The attention turns toward them for a while when their area of expertise is particularly useful and they may receive raises and accolades that signal everyone’s appreciation.
There’s a term for people who are experts in one area, working hard to beat all others and be the best there is: Specialists. Unfortunately, specialists aren’t the ones who go on to long-term glory and success.
Specialists are called in when one things needs to be done and done well. But the ones who call them in are the ones who have already been promoted and odds are good, I’ve noticed, that the ones doing the calling aren’t specialists, they’re generalists.
These generalists know enough about a lot of things to know what needs to be done. More valuably, the best ones know who to turn to for a specific task and recognize when they’ve hit the extent of their own knowledge. For example, they may not know every fine detail of advertising on LinkedIn, but they know the general lay of the land because they spend time reading and keeping up to date on that and many other things. They can speak to broad points in a meeting but then know that the actual execution is going to depend on the skills of the specialist.
The reason generalists tend to move up the ranks of organizations is they have skills that transfer across a number of disciplines. They’re good at resource allocation. They have experience putting together proposals and budgets. They work well on committees and groups. They network effectively and are a positive influence on the team as a whole. In short, they see the whole board, not just the next move.
It’s those sorts of transferable skills that are necessary in organizations. These people can work anywhere because they haven’t devoted their entire attention for five, 10, 20 years to one niche industry segment but have learned how companies work and how to manage both up and down within the system. If given the chance they could succeed at an industrial farm equipment company just as much as they have at a TV news station.
The sort of keyword-based job recruiting reality we’re living in right now doesn’t necessarily reward these people, but that might even be the point. By only looking for specialists, companies are essentially only hiring them for a short period of time, as long as their specialty is useful. When the next trend comes along they will look for a specialist in that field and nudge the previous one out since their skills are no longer what the company is focused on.
From that perspective, specialization – the “Excel In One Area” advice – is prudent. You will be hired because you’re the one in 1,500 that ticks all the boxes and matches all the key phrases a recruiter is searching for. It won’t last, though.
Organizations of all kinds need generalists. They need the kind of people who know a little about a lot and can muster their teams effectively and efficiently. They need the non-commissioned officers who get into the dirt with those on the line and pull everyone up and out into battle. They need the generals who are looking at all 17 battles happening, making tough but necessary calls to prioritize one over the other because it’s strategically important over time, not just right now.
To be fair, this is a bit of a rationalization. I’ve spent my entire career being really good at a couple things and fair at several more. I know just enough about a few topics to be dangerous. Importantly, I know what I don’t know and have the awareness to call in backup when needed. Those are the kinds of skills that work everywhere, on any project.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.