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On being a generalist

Published Mar 08 2020

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You have a choice. You can be a specialist, or a generalist.

Let’s use the Pareto Principle to explain it.

Specialist means your skills are 80% ONE THING, one field. You dedicate 80% of your time to that, and you have no interest in expanding your knowledge outside of it.

You ignore 99% of the rest of the things to be great at that specific 1% you want.

Generalist means you have your hands into 4 different broad topics, and you dedicate 25% of your energy to each of them.

Or maybe your skills are 50% in one field, and you have 2 other fields where you put the other 50% of your time.

You’re a specialist if you’re a developer focusing on React and you just do that. You even call yourself “React developer”.

You’re a generalist if you know and use React, but also know Vue, you can design a page in Figma and translate that design into a React component with CSS. Plus, you also know how to deploy an application to Heroku.

Which is better?

I don’t know.

Some companies only hire specialists. If you’re Google, it makes little sense to hire a generalist, I think. They have entire teams doing that very specific thing.

An early-stage startup might hire a few generalists instead, because they are more flexible and ready to change their focus at need.

I am a generalist. I am a Computer Engineer that can write in a few different programming languages, I have an eye for design, I can do some design, copywriting and marketing, I know how to use a Linux server, I can create mobile apps, Web apps, I work with embedded devices.

And I do all those things pretty poorly, if you compare the result of each individual thing I might do with the outcome of a specialist.

But as a generalist I have an advantage over a specialist: I will never say “this is not something I do”.



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