June 12, 2016

What If You’re Neither a Specialist nor a Generalist?

Are you a specialist or a generalist? It’s a familiar question to many in the tech industry, and no doubt other sectors too.

Specialists know a lot about one area. Generalists know a little about lots of areas.

(I’ve constructed these definitions myself because it’s surprisingly hard to find a source that defines them independently; often one is defined as the opposite of the other)

More recently, T-shaped’ people have been claimed to be the best of both worlds:

T-shaped people (also known as versatilists or generalised specialists) know a lot about one area and a little about lots of areas.

(The horizontal arms of the T represent the breadth of understanding and the vertical stem represents deep understanding in one narrow area. There is also the concept of π-shaped or even m-shaped people who maintain specialist knowledge in multiple areas, but these seem pretty unrealistic to me and I imagine only serve to make people feel inadequate)

The problem is, I don’t think I’m any of these. I am too restless to choose one narrow area and stick with it for life, and in any case my job involves moving between projects with such variety it would be detrimental. Yet when I find a new subject that interests me, I immerse myself so deeply in it that my knowledge of other areas fades into the background.

If anything, I’m closest to a T-shaped person but with a shorter vertical stem that constantly moves around… Not so catchy!

The best way I can think of to describe myself is temporary specialist. My completely made-up, clunky, work-in-progress definition of this is:

Temporary specialists become specialists in an area for a limited time before moving on to a new area. Previous knowledge becomes difficult to recall but can be accessed faster than learning it from scratch.

I should make it clear I have no formal background in psychology, or any field which gives me any credibility to talk about human behaviour (unless you count philosophy…). This is based purely on my own analysis and observations, but the temporary specialist’ label seems to resonate with people so it seemed worth sharing!

Signs You Might Be a Temporary Specialist:

  • You’re insatiably curious
  • You take pleasure in learning and tend to learn quickly; understanding unexplored subjects is an end in itself and is part of what drives you
  • You lose interest in things once you feel you have mastered them or when your attention is drawn to another new and fascinating subject
  • You struggle to recall much about anything you’re not currently specialising’ in off the top of your head (this can be a disadvantage in interviews when you’re asked about stuff you’ve done in the past — it can be mistaken for superficial understanding), but given a chance to refresh your memory you can return to your previous level of knowledge in that area with relative ease
  • You often feel like an imposter because your knowledge in an area never quite matches that of a life-long specialist, yet you don’t maintain the constant breadth of understanding of a generalist
  • You can be trusted to complete even unfamiliar tasks competently, thoroughly immersing and educating yourself in everything you need to know to get the job done
  • You can connect with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, because chances are you were once passionately interested in something related to their field

Let me know if you find this sounds like you or if you find it a useful concept!