By Ludvig Brisby Jeppsson
The fall semester has just begun and the university is filling up with new and returning students. Campus is coming back to life and the student counsellor services are in full swing. Majors, minors and classes have to be decided. Regardless if you are a freshman or a senior, you are faced with the choice of learning something you have inclination towards, or something new. Excel in one area or explore a new.
Student athletes are faced with similar questions. A soccer player might ask him- or herself: “Should I train my weaker foot to become all-round so I can play in more positions, or improve my already decent foot so that I can score on free kicks and win us the game? Should I work on my strengths or my weaknesses?” Become a specialist or a generalist. The dilemma goes across all fields of personal development and is therefore present at many decisive moments in life. So what path should you choose?
The obvious first answer is that the best option would be to be a specialist in many things. Unfortunately, the era of polymaths are moving further and further away. The term, often personalized through da Vinci, refers to scholars during the Renaissance and Enlightenment becoming experts in multiple scientific and cultural fields. Without depreciating their performance, this was likely made possibly due to the fact the many areas were in their infancy then, and that few people received any form of education.
Today, the situation is very different. Due to the industrial revolution, where the division of labour and assembly line was introduced, people started to specialize at work. The efficiency increased as the number of different tasks decreased and industrialized societies grew, both economically and in complexity. With globalization nothing suggests the trend will change, on the contrary, the global competition makes companies split the value chain into smaller and smaller pieces, and regarding people, pushes the demand for specialization at younger age and higher education.
Marketing and corporate strategy is on the same track, stressing that differentiating your business and finding a niche is fatally important in order to receive competitive advantage. And even though the term threshold capabilities is used—meaning you just need a certain level of skill to compete in some situations being a specialist is the overall superior choice, at least when looking at the competitive situation, such as the job market.
In biology, the generalists and specialists are viewed more equally. Being a generalist species means that you can survive in many different conditions and you can respond much better to a change in the environment or crisis than the specialist species. And as the world is constantly changing environment thanks to digitalization, disruptive technologies, and crisis, maybe being the less risky generalist isn’t that bad after all.
For example, if an economic crisis struck, it would be valuable to have basic knowledge of building houses, sewing and farming, skills that was common just a few generations back.
So far, generalist and specialist have been judged only in matter of evolutionary fitness or success on a market, which is perhaps easier when a firm or an animal is the object. When it comes to humans, other factors come into play. Marx meant that the division of labour, mentioned above, made people “alienated” and depressed as they got cut off from the whole production process and only did repetitive tasks.
That kind of argument might be dismissed as out-dated considering that machines do many simple production tasks today, but it is relevant in the sense that we are all just doing a small part in large and complex machinery. Also, most people are curious and need different sources of stimulation.
So, even though trying out new things might get you a bit down the road towards becoming a generalist, it might as well make you find that area to specialize in. And the somewhat ironic twist to the whole dilemma is that these terms are relative. It might actually be the choices of environment in which you decide to study, work and live that come to determine whether you are generalist or a specialist.