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Is it Better to Be a Creative Generalist or a Specialist?

Specialist or generalist?

Image © Dave Gray, reproduced by kind permission

If creativity is your livelihood, is it a good idea to pursue multiple interests and develop a range of skills, or should you focus on one or two key talents and become the best around in your specialism?

I’m asking the question because two of my favourite blogs take completely opposite positions on this issue. In the red corner, Steve Hardy devotes his entire blog to the concept of the Creative Generalist, and recently wrote an excellent post about What Specifically Do Generalists Do?. In the blue corner, advertising copywriter Scamp has this to say about creative generalism:

the idea enrages me so much that every time it pops up I feel the need to reach for a hammer, like I’m playing a blogging version of whack-a-mole.

At the risk of getting whacked by Scamp’s hammer (and of mixing metaphors) I’m going to look at both sides of the question and see if I can referee the fight.

The Case for Creative Generalism

Leonardo's notebook

Photo by tjscenes

In his blog post What Specifically Do Generalists Do? Steve Hardy argues for the ‘secret talent’ of generalists:

Nothing can substitute for depth of analysis, and there’s proven value in specialization – it’s what education, career paths, scientific research, and technological innovation are built on – but generalism is a secret talent. With so much complex information, fragmented in so many ways and developing faster and faster, it is increasingly important to have generalists around to make sense of it all, of the big picture. People who appreciate diversity, who are in the know about the wider world and who understand how things interact are invaluable observers, matchmakers, and pioneers of the intersectional ideas so vital for success in today’s knowledge economy, conceptual age, and global community.

He then describes the lists the following ‘core areas at which Creative Generalists excel’:

• Wander & Wonder – finding possibility
• Synthesize & Summarize – presenting information
• Link & Leap – generating ideas
• Mix & Match – connecting people
• Experience & Empathize – understanding worldview

It’s a thorough, thoughtful post that repays the full ‘cup of tea and a sit down’ treatment. Steve also makes the case for generalism in a Creative Generalist manifesto for Change This.

Among Steve’s eclectic curiosity interviewees is Russell Davies, whose blog exemplifies many of these characteristics of creative generalism. Russell also writes about creative generalism from time to time. One of the things I like about Russell’s blog is that you never know what you’re going to get next, from cashless telephone boxes to transport depots to the action cook book to electroplankton baths and ukulele mashup genius. He’s a kind of innovation antenna for the rest of us, investigating novel technology and attitudes and extrapolating trends and possibilities.

The poet W.B. Yeats wrote a moving elegy for his friend Major Robert Gregory, in which he praised the younger man as an artist, scholar and man of action:

Soldier, scholar, horseman, he,
And all he did done perfectly
As though he had but that one trade alone.

As poetry, I love these lines, but I would say that (if Yeats can be believed) Major Gregory was an untypical generalist. Perfection of each kind is not usually what they are after, or what they deliver. They are more at home with the notebook or sketchpad (or these days the blog) than the marble plinth or three volume novel. Coleridge is a good example – described by his biographer Richard Holmes as ‘the great master of the suggestive fragment’, he has a restless, omnivorous imagination that flits, in the 6 volumes of his Notebooks, from poetry to journalism to philosophy to plans for an ideal society in the wilderness of America to recipes for beer to dreams to sexual fantasies to prayers to nature studies and the colour of urine in a chamber pot. Several of his greatest poems, such as ‘Kubla Khan’ and Christabel, were left unfinished.

Leonardo da Vinci was probably the ultimate creative generalist (or polymath or Renaissance man as they used to be known). As a painter, sculptor, architect, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, botanist, writer and musician, he approached perfection in several disciplines – but also left his share of unfinished projects and suggestive fragments, such as the huge statue of a horse (‘Gran Cavallo’) that was never cast in bronze, or the unfinished paintings of St Jerome and the Adoration of the Magi. More recently, some of my favourite generalists include Mervyn Peake (novelist, poet, painter, illustrator, sculptor), Brian Eno (musician, producer, thinker, installation artist) and Thomas Heatherwick (designer, architect, engineer, sculptor).

If I’ve whetted your appetite for generalism, you might enjoy these two blogs I discovered while researching this post: Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist and The Martini Shaker. And Tim Ferriss’ Top 5 Reasons to Be a Jack of All Trades. Oh, and Leonardo’s finally got round to starting a blog.

The Case for Specialism

Rabbit

Photo by ceriseyyy

There’s a Japanese proverb that says if you try to chase two rabbits at once, you’ll lose both. Scamp is clearly of the ‘single rabbit’ school of thought and lists his Top 5 reasons why Specialism is better than Generalism. The thrust of his argument is that it’s rare to find someone who is able to perform well at a wide range of skills, just as Johann Cruyff was almost unique among footballers in being able to ‘defend, create goals and score goals’. He acknowledges that ‘great advertising requires different skills’ but says it’s better to assemble a team of diverse specialists than to try to find all of them in the same person.

Marcus Buckingham and Kurt Coffman make a similar point in their book First, Break All the Rules, where they argue that instead of trying to fix our weaknesses we should focus on developing our strongest talents. So for example, I could probably learn to play the guitar competently, but I don’t have my brother’s talent for music, so I’ll never achieve any great distinction at it – or experience the kind of satisfaction he gets from playing in a really good band. I’m better off concentrating on writing, which is something for which I have more talent and inclination. And less chance of being trounced by my little brother.

Scamp laid down the gauntlet to the champions of generalism in advertising:

Here’s my team of specialists – Johnny Hornby (CEO), Paul Feldwick (Head of Planning), Richard Flintham (ECD). Could anyone put up a team of three generalists, that would make a better agency than HFF? I doubt it.

That was 8 months ago and so far no-one has done it, which suggests he has a point.

Scamp receives staunch support from another advertising man, Winston Fletcher, in his book Tantrums and Talent – How to get the best from creative people:

In the creative industries specialisation of labour applies with a vengeance. Most creators, thought they may not realise it, have a narrow range of creative abilities. Feature writers rarely make good fictions writers; designers are quite different from illustrators; fashion photographers can’t shoot portraits; still photographers can’t shoot movies; in advertising few creators of press advertising are really good at television commercials…. one of my partners is an outstanding editor of comedy programmes. At a pinch he can edit anything – but he has an instinct for the timing of hilarious sequences.
(Tantrums and Talent, p.49)

Fletcher does acknowledge the existence of generalists, but like Scamp he sees them as the exception to the rule of creative specialisation:

There are exceptions, but they are so infrequent as to be noteworthy. Some of the most massively talented creative people – Sir Lawrence Olivier and Orson Welles spring to mind – have been able to master a wide range of disparate creative roles. Such multi-faceted talents are few and far between. The creative manager should almost always urge creators to keep to their last, and to excel at the things they do well, rather than allow them to try and be jacks-of-all-trades.
(Tantrums and Talent, p.49)

It’s worth checking out the comments on Scamp’s post, for a lively debate about the issue, including other footballers who can defend, create and score.

Dave Gray’s solution – generalists are best at defining problems, specialists at solving them

Problemsolution

Image © Dave Gray, reproduced by kind permission

Dave Gray suggests that we should look at generalists and specialists as playing complementary roles in the creative process. Generalists have the breadth of knowledge to be able to survey the big picture and identify critical problems and goals, but they may not have the specialist knowledge to solve the problem or execute the plan.

It’s an appealing idea that seems to fit the traditional division of labour in advertising agencies between planners (strategic generalists who define the goal) and creatives (specialists who solve the problem with their creative execution). Maybe we can imagine a team including planner Russell Davies and his eclectic enthusiasms, and Scamp bringing his laser-like creative focus to the execution. I’d love to be a fly on the wall.

David Armano finds a ‘lot of truth’ in Dave Gray’s diagram, but suggests that the roles are not always so clearly defined:

Generalists can excel at both defining and solving problems but may require the assistance of specialists as they go deeper into execution. Specialists can excel in defining the problem especially when it falls within their area of expertise. Are we saying the same thing? I think the difference is stressing that both can actually function in the other’s “role” depending on the individual and context.

Coming back to advertising as an example, it’s not hard to detect both sides resisting the straitjacket of their roles, with cheeky planners wondering whether they are the new creatives and awkward creatives challenging the creative briefs that planners work so hard on. Having said that, I think Dave’s diagram does a good job of clarifiying the essential differences between generalists and specialists, and their complementary functions.

So come on then, which is better?

Two sides of the same coing

Image by Steve Hardy

As usual with this kind of debate, I can see the merits of both sides. The world would be a poorer place without the Leonardos, Coleridges, Heatherwicks, Davies and Peakes dipping their fingers into as many pies as they can. Equally, I wouldn’t want to stop Scamp haring after his rabbit.

To get myself off the charge of sitting on the fence, I’m tempted to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald: ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.’ But I’ll resist the temptation.

Instead I’ll quote Steve Hardy again, who sees generalists and specialists as ‘two sides of the same coin’:

the best fireworks are generated when the two approaches are somehow blended–in either an individual’s mindset or in an organization’s structure–and arranged to work together in concert.

To me, ‘creative generalist or specialist?’ is a false dichotomy. Apart from the argument that the two roles are complementary, the question assumes that ‘creative’ is an easily identifiable, homogenous quality. It isn’t. It can be applied to all kinds of activities, disciplines and professions, some of which are better suited to generalists, some specialists.

A third way? David Armano’s T-shaped Creativity

T-shaped creativity

Image by David Armano

David Armano’s concept of T-shaped creativity which he described in a post for the Marketing Profs blog, gives us another way of looking at the specialist/generalist division:

The notion is simple – cultivate people on your team that have a core competency, but can easily branch out (like the shape of a T). They ideally possess traits such as curiosity, empathy and aren’t afraid to ask why. And there is a distinction between this type of individual vs. a “jack-of-all trades.” The core competency and branches are complimentary, with the branches being secondary strengths. It represents breadth and depth of skills.

In terms of an individual’s skill-set, the vertical stroke comprises specialist skills and knowledge, while the horizontal stroke represents the generalist skills that enable the person to position their specialism in a way that it is useful and desirable for others. We can see this as a variation of the classic definition of creativity as novelty + value. The novel element derives from the vertical stroke of the T – which David labels ‘creative driven’, comprising insights, ideas and concepts. The horizontal stroke of the T is concerned with value – whether the new ideas and products are useful and/or desirable. At the intersection of the T a useable end product.

For example: my own core specialisms (the vertical stroke of the T) are:

  • writing
  • facilitating change (as a coach, trainer or therapist)

In order to make these skills relevant, attractive and useful to others, while working as an independent consultant, I’ve developed some knowledge and competence in the following areas, which comprise the horizontal stroke of the T:

  • blogging
  • marketing
  • networking
  • sales
  • accounting
  • presentation skills
  • intellectual property law
  • organisation theory
  • strategy
  • project management
  • negotiation
  • entrepreneurship
  • time management

One reason I took time out to study for an MA in Creative & Media Enterprises was to broaden my knowledge of the creative industries sector so that I could position my core skills in a way that would be meaningful to my clients. At a basic level, this means clients feel comfortable when they find I can ‘speak their language’ and have some understanding of the challenges they face. I would definitely say that studying for the MA broadened my mind – at the same time it was something of a relief to return to my own writing afterwards, and to get back to working with clients face-to-face.

I never knowingly pass up an opportunity to compare myself to Shakespeare, so I’ll wheel him on as my next example. It’s hard to think of anyone with a greater specialist talent for writing, or who achieved more with such a talent (the vertical stroke of the T). Yet he was also a competent actor and a highly successful businessman as a partner in the acting company The King’s Men (the horizontal stroke). The various aspects of his career were not in conflict, but created a dynamic creative tension that led to enormous creative and professional success.

The T-shaped model suggests that we are all generalists and specialists to some degree. Some people will have a longer vertical stroke, others a wider cross stroke, with many variations of size and proportion. (No sniggering at the back, please.) The most wide-ranging generalist will usually have one or two favourite specialisms at which s/he excels; and even the most committed specialist will need some grasp of other disciplines if s/he wants to achieve recognition and rewards. Scamp recently blogged about starting to work as a creative director – a role that requires new skills, as a facilitator of others’ creativity, helping them catch their own rabbits.

How about you?

  • Do you consider yourself a creative generalist or specialist? Why?
  • How has generalising or specialising helped or hindered you?
  • Would you assign separate roles to generalists and specialists?

Comments

  1. Marcus Kirsch says:

    I would like to comment with not commenting. Why elaborate on a discussion that seems to be about semantics and based in a black and white world-view. I perceive black and white worlds very comforting, don’t you? ;)

  2. Mark,

    Your timing is impeccable!

    I’ve been thinking about this for several weeks now :-)

    To answer your question…my latest thinking is that having a blend of both specialist and generalist skills is something that has definitely helped me over the years.

    As a filmmaker, I -specialize- in producing short films for organizations.

    But…as a -generalist- I produce a variety of film stories for organizations.

    I’m both. I bet a lot of others are, too.

    I think Armano is on to something. Thanks for starting my day off with a though-provoking piece!

    Tom

    Thomas Clifford’s last blog post..Are Your Employees Your Story Stewards?

  3. Well, I’ve never actually made any money in my life, ever, so my comments are probably only relevant to … vagrants and aristocrats, but I was talking about this kind of thing to someone the other day. I said that I’d be happy to do one thing in my life well, but unfortunately that one thing would be writing (as an author/novelist), which necessarily requires that one should be a generalist, since what you’re doing when you’re writing a novel is trying to create, as Will Self has pointed out, a virtual world. You can’t do that if you’re merely a specialist. You have to grapple with reality in all its manifestations. In that sense, it’s rather unlike any other artform. You don’t actually have to know anything about anything to write a poem or a song, or paint a picture. Writing a novel means having to encompass the entire world in your view.

    By the way, I take it you’re not a fan of the very sensible theory that Shakespeare didn’t write those plays?

    James Lovelock also has a lot to say about specialists versus generalists at the begnning of Gaia. Scientists used to be generalists, but that’s increasingly difficult, if not impossible. A specialist, reductionist view of the world could be seen as one thing underlying the ecological crisis. Gaia theory is a generalist theory – a theory of the connections between things.

    Unrelated, probably, but thought I’d also post this:

    http://imomus.livejournal.com/2008/03/09/

  4. Marcus – then I’ll reply without replying.

    Thomas + Quentin – interesting that you both describe having specialist skills but requiring generalist knowledge to use them, in films or fiction.

    Quentin – sounds like you and Auden are singing from the same hymn sheet:

    For, to achieve his lightest wish, he must
    Become the whole of boredom, subject to
    Vulgar complaints like love, among the Just

    Be just, among the Filthy filthy too,
    And in his own weak person, if he can,
    Dully put up with all the wrongs of Man.
    (‘The Novelist’)

    As for Shakespeare, everyone knows the plays were written by Lord Percy Percy of Northumberland.

  5. Actually, I was just thinking after I posted that, that there is possibly another art form that is like the writing of a novel, and that’s making a film. Narrative, basically.

    Of course, I think ‘grappling with the world’ is part of art in general, but I think research is much less a part of the other arts, actually, probably hardly ever happens in other arts at all.

    If novelists don’t die young as often as maybe singers or poets, it’s probably because novelists grow old doing the research for their next novel, boning up on the customs of the lesser known tribes of Papua New Guinea, or whatever. Nick Drake didn’t have to do that to make Pink Moon, I don’t think.

  6. Like the Auden, by the way.

  7. Generalists are often afraid of seeming not to have depth. I’m a generalist : )

  8. Jude Rosen says:

    Quentin highlights the problem of generalists – often lack of knowledge about specialisms which are not theirs! Poets and artists of all kinds do research as much as novelists – and even those artists who are postmodern intertextual fanatics like Tarantino, cannot live solely in the fabricated world of the imagination or they would die.
    I think in art as in life, the more influences you open yourself up to, the richer the layers and connections but also the more danger of incoherence, or confusion and the more likelihood of getting things wrong…. But also the more specialised without broader reading and experience of other spheres or awareness of debates around one’s discipline, the more likely it is that the work will cut itself adrift from the public sphere: from critical, moral and political evaluation of ideas, from informing and enhancing the public imagination and from enlarging human possibilities.

    FROM MARK – Hi Jude, sorry your thoughtful comment got trapped in the spam filter. It sounds like balance is the key here – or avoiding two kinds of ignorance. The generalist’s ignorance of deep knowledge of a subject, or the specialist’s ignorance of the wider context of his/her work.

  9. EXCELLENT post Mark. And here is the link to the Marketing Profs article.

    http://www.mpdailyfix.com/2006/05/tshaped_creativity.html

    I’ll be sharing your excellent analysis with friends.

    David Armano’s last blog post..Wanted, Panel for this Topic: “Beyond Gimmicks”

  10. Generalists become executives/leaders who depend upon specialists to build a business.

    Lewis Green’s last blog post..Help! I Can’t See…

  11. Generalists are lazy. They’re afraid of going down to the depths a specialist can, ergo they tend to socialize as a way to blur their lack of depth.

    But being a specialist requires you to be a generalist in a small, self-contained cosmos.

    I’m a specialist (Electronics Engineering teacher) but have to know loads of ancilliary stuff just to be a succesful and satisfied engineer, from audio, to graphics, to performing arts, to botanics, to prosthetics, to telecommunications just to name a few.

    Specialist are more expensive, but they know more.

  12. I write film scripts for corporations and I now plan to direct some of these films. Outwardly, this has nothing to do with mobile technology, which is where I spend a good deal of my time and is what I’m best know for. Even within that category, I find myself doing architectural design, business modelling, experience design and all manner of what it takes to make stuff happen in mobile. I’m also a home educator and I’m writing a novel.

    A lot of skills map across all these areas. One has to know how to do research, how to qualify information, process it, organise it, connect it and so on. I find that the essence of what I do, no matter which area, is problem solving. A key component is mental modelling. This seems to be a transferable, or generalist skill. Clearly, to then apply such general skills to a particular area requires domain knowledge. Even here, I find modelling incredibly useful to grasp new areas. I might not understand exactly how a car engine works, but if I could break it down into some kind of model, I can at least map out the problem and then apply various talents to it, but not metallurgy science or some specialist domain.

    By allowing myself to be a generalist, I have been able to find more opportunities and interests in life. The issue to me is how do I describe myself to others and so on. How do I describe myself to myself? People like to categorise others – pigeon hole them. When I’m asked what do I do, I often reply by saying ‘lots of things’ and it almost never goes down very well. If I attempt an original ‘job description’ like ‘mobilist’, which is the one I use in the mobile world because I do so many tasks within it, then it also causes problems for others.

    The problem is that there are no jobs for generalists. For example, given what I said about skills, I could easily describe myself as a problem solver. I believe that there is a wide category of problems that I could address. However, people find these ‘general skills’ hard to qualify or quantify. Let’s say a hospital wanted to know why something was going wrong in its processes, I may be able to help, but they will probably want to know how much ‘hospital process’ experience I have.

    These are some of my thoughts. By the way, I home educate my kids precisely because I believe that a new approach to learning and carrying out work is required. With my kids, we spend a lot of time on ‘projects’ and ‘synthesis’ within which we fold the various disciplines, like math, that might ordinarily be classed as conventional subjects and skills.

    Paul Golding’s last blog post..Mac and iPhone apps – cool and cool to come

  13. There is no doubt, considering the social framework we operate in, it is better to specialize. It’s where all the stable jobs are. But it ain’t that simple for many, many people.

    Generalists are people, I imagine, who have yet to figure things out – to zero in on something they might me good at and earn a solid living by it. Some manage to do it others are still roaming around in the dark; sometimes forever. Society wants us to be “specialized” but how can one be if they haven’t figured it out? So, I am with Valeria only I would classify it as self-doubt.

    I suspect there are many Orson Welles among us. We just don’t tap into it. How do you convince an employer about your varied, nuanced talents with any degree of objectivity?

    Heaven knows I am in dire need of trying to pinpoint exactly where my writing skills lie. What a confused mess it has been for this pragmatic and realistic but creative entity. I feel like I’m being torn apart between the two worlds explained in this post.

    No wonder I’m a screwed up generalist. The scary thing is that I don’t know if I’m kidding myself!

  14. This is a very interesting post. I’m going to have to come back to it later to check out the links.

    I remember reading David Armano’s post on the T-shaped creative a while back. And I like your extension of it. Specializing is important as a way to differentiate yourself in your field but general knowledge is important so you don’t get stuck as the world changes.

    John Johansen’s last blog post..The Slippery Slope of Social Media

  15. Thanks for the great comments everyone.

    Quentin – ah yes, I was never much good at narrative. Surprised you didn’t pick up on the Papua New Guinea references in Pink Moon.

    Valeria – it’s much more superficial to LOOK deep :-)

    David – thanks for spreading the word. I’ll add the link to the article.

    Lewis – I hadn’t thought of it in relation to seniority, but can see what you’re getting at. I do think there’s room for generalists lower down the ranks, who depend on negotiation / influence rather than authority to bring their synthesis to fruition.

    Felixe – are you serious?? Most of the generalists I know are pretty hard working. Socialising isn’t always a way of compensating for lack of depth. I do agree that even specialists have to become generalists to an extent if they want to advance in their specialism.

    Paul – very interesting analysis of interlocking skill- and mind-sets. I like your phrase ‘allowing myself to be a generalist’ – I think for all of use there’s a temptation to stay within the field we know, when it can be rewarding and enjoyable to relax a little and dabble in other areas. And it’s nice to know that causes problems for the folk who want to pigeonhole us. :-)

    The Commentator – I’m not sure I’d agree that being a generalist is a stage you go through before you ‘figure things out’. I think it’s perfectly possible to be a mature, well-rounded and well-developed generalist. Take it from me – it’s perfectly possible to be a screwed-up specialist. :-) You could flip it over and talk about the creative value of uncertainty and not rushing to judgment – Keats was committed to his specialism of poetry, but praised the quality of ‘Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’.

    John – nice summary, would be interested in any further thoughts.

  16. the one needs the other to suceed. but you’ll never reach anything when one tries to do the others job…

    with enough time and some talent you can become a specialist in almost any area. but you cant learn being a generalist. you got to have it…

    just my opinion of course ;)

    thx for the great article
    cheers

  17. Hey, Mark, you’ve got the blogo-blood flowing with this one.

    Here’s my take: “Is it better to be a. . .?: is the wrong question.

    The question is: “What are you?” Go forth and be it.

    Steve Roesler’s last blog post..Talent, Passion, and Purpose: A Visual

  18. Thanks Steve, sound advice as usual. And you’ve rumbled my habit of (artfully?) asking the wrong question.

  19. First time here.

    This topic always pops up in my discussions. So I solved it.

    You might think you are a generalist but you always find someone more generalist than you.
    You might think you are a specialist, you always find someone more specialist than you.

    I had to lead a team for a sofware development, I had the concept and the developpers had to program it. I always was complaining that they had a specialist view of the problem and they should open their mind to other solutions.

    One day, I started to learn a little bit more about their programming and I discover a whole world where they were true generalists. So,being a generalist or specialist depends also of the context

    I would say that it is irrelevant to try to find it out. But maybe it’s a too generic postion that I should review depending each specific case.

    Excuse my poor English.

  20. Welcome Khalil. Thanks, that’s an interesting perspective – these things are all relative. I tend to think I’m a bit of a poetry specialist, but last night I was sat in class listening to my poetry tutor and thinking I’m scratching the surface compared to her.

  21. I agree.

    Can we define a generalist as a specialist of generalisation.

    PS: I like this 15 minutes before posting. very interesting and useful.

  22. We can if you like!

    Glad you like the commenting functionality, it’s fairly new so the feedback is appreciated.

  23. Brilliant article, Mark, links with some of my own research/thinking around the dilemmas of UK creative SMEs: there are more SMEs (i.e. ‘business units’) but slightly less people classified as in the ‘creative industries’ definition in UK (particularly out of London) – with the assumption that businesses are getting increasingly smaller and more specialised. The dilemma here is that these ever spawning micros of specialism will need more generalist business skills to survive in the many-hatted chaotic world of the self-managing micro enterprise. So we all need to be specialist, but business skills (inc. sales, accounting & marketing) and emotional intelligence need to pervade everyone for small businesses to succeed and connect.

    Myself – I guess in some worlds I’m a generalist – as a digital media(and sometimes creative industries) consultant I cover a lot of ground – whereas in other contexts I work in like public policy and business advice – I’d be considered specialist. Support the argument we all are/have to be – both!

  24. Hi Susi, sounds like we have similar experiences as consultants/micro-businesses. Yes that’s the irony of specialisation in the creative industries – beyond a certain point you have to become a generalist BECAUSE you are such a specialist that it’s not obvious for others to grasp how your skills and knowledge are important.

    Your blog looks great. Would be interested to know more about your research.

  25. I think the “collaboration” of both generalists and specialist can achieve great results. The difficult part is each side willing to listen, share and be open enough without being opinionated or preconceived. Everyone and every type has a unique mix and level of knowledge and experiences. Even cultural background make a difference; corporate vs. not and US vs. European, etc.

  26. Marc – couldn’t agree more, combining different perspectives is integral to creativity, as well as making life more interesting. And this is true of so many situations: ‘The difficult part is each side willing to listen, share and be open enough without being opinionated or preconceived.’.

  27. When you’re starting out, you are encouraged to be a generalist. But the further along you go, you naturally begin to specialize. If you don’t — you end up like me; someone whose bag of widely varied skills as a writer, editor, designer, web updater has made me fit for organizations that seek a one-stop answer to their creative solutions. It’s a blessing (there’s always a job) and a curse (it’s never a good paying job).

  28. Leonardo da Vinci could be described as a specialist and a generalist? But, utlimately, he was a genius, a master.

    It seems to me that a specialist is someone who has not achieved the rank of master. They still have far to go. Specialists can still grow and learn. Specialists should remain humble. Humility is the sign of a true master.

    I have worked with specialists, and it is clear that some truly are specialists while others really are not. I think the world benefits from the knowledge and skills of both so-called specialists and generalists, but sometimes the generalist will be the true specialist and the specialist will be no more than an ignoramus or an inflated ego.

    Is it better to be a generalist than a specialist? It depends on your value system. Being a specialist sounds rather limited to me. I enjoy my life as a generalist because I love to dabble and explore. Some people do consider me a specialist, but I am not at all.

    B.t.w., I found the reference to the Japanese proverb as the hook to your story interesting, but perhaps misleading. Japan celebrates the generalist. Its corporate culture has thrived on encouraging generalism, which cannot be bad in light of the fact that Japan is the world&s second biggest economy and the country was recently voted most innovative country by the Economist. However, it is undoubtedly a nation that prizes its masters too.

  29. Tom – you’re looking very similar to Cat! I guess whichever path we choose turns out to be a blessing and a curse…

    Mary – I think I’m getting a little lost in the thickets of specialists, generalists, masters and geniuses!

  30. tinarett says:

    I think generalists are just searching for the area they want to specialize in. General knowledge is actually very good as it allows you too look at problem from a number of different perspectives. I think generalists and specialists can compliment each other in a team. While a team of specialists may not see eye to eye because each of them think they are right.

  31. Very great article, thanks Mark for your great effort to clarify the debate in both sides of the coin.

    Yes indeed i come to acknowledge that we are all slowly turning from generalist to specialist , and those who say they are not, are just trying to think otherwise. As experience moves on, we tend to like to experience a certain situation/place/idea more often, making us specialist in that area.

    Once again, thanks :)

  32. Someone from somewhere. At a frontier. Now. says:

    This is a brilliant description of an paradox state of art.
    It´s a (Di)lemma.
    It´s beautiful. It´s fascinating!
    It´s ugly. It´s terrifying!
    It´s a NFA which is equivalent to an DFA.

    It should be a rule(r) to define our rule(s).

    It’s a question.
    To an answer which is not 42.
    We need a vote upon that.
    Involving a subset of a well-defined partition. Representing the whole community.
    Therefore two aspects have to be taken into account.
    It´s should be accurate.
    And it should be precise.

    Otherwise there´ll be chaos ?!

    For sure ?!

    Judge for yourself if you´re decided yet.
    And spread the word.

  33. I think this is an excellent article, but I regret to say it misses an important point. It is rather a question of ones nature whether you are a creative generalist or a specialist.

    I have grown from a specialist to a creative generalist which suits me better. But it is a constant fight between the two sides of the coin.

    Generalists need to be careful to get the details right. Specialists need to mind which way they are going.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Is it Better to Be a Creative Generalist or a Specialist? A discussion of the tension on creative teams between generalists and specialists. (tags: creativity specialist) [...]

  2. [...] Wishful Thinking » Is it Better to Be a Creative Generalist or a Specialist? A really interesting post comparing the benefits of specializing in one thing versus having wide ranging knowledge. Personally, I think a balance of the two works out pretty well. [...]

  3. [...] Is it Better to Be a Creative Generalist or a Specialist? – Wishful ThinkingExcellent, thorough post on a really interesting conversation I’ve seen pop up a lot recently. [...]

  4. [...] Wishful Thinking » Blog Archive » Is it Better to Be a Creative Generalist or a Specialist? If creativity is your livelihood, is it a good idea to pursue multiple interests and develop a range of skills, or should you focus on one or two key talents and become the best around in your specialism? (tags: creativity specialist generalist innovation article ideas creative) [...]

  5. [...] Wishful Thinking does a solid Comparative Analysis of Creative Specialist vs. Creative Generalist. [...]

  6. [...] came to this conclusion after carefully reading through Mark McGuinness’s post Is it Better to be a Creative Generalist or a Specialist, including perusing various links such as Steve Hardy’s manifesto on creative generalism and [...]

  7. [...] Wishful Thinking » Blog Archive » Is it Better to Be a Creative Generalist or a Specialist? Article on specialist over generalist. (tags: creativity specialist generalist article toread) [...]

  8. [...] via The Creative Generalist; full original article here. There is a good post on this topic over at Wishful Thinking [...]

  9. [...] are great debates about “Generalists vs. Specialists” and “Consumers vs. Producers” [...]

  10. [...] Is it Better to Be a Creative Generalist or a Specialist? Mark McGuinness does some pretty deep analysis of the advantages of being a specialist or a generalist. A great thing for freelancers to consider. [...]

  11. [...] most of us can “find what’s interesting in everything”. Russell is a confirmed creative generalist, so he probably can, but I think most of us have a more limited range of interests. Which is no bad [...]

  12. [...] a seemingly impartial (gutless) discourse on this topic, I recommend you check out this post on Wishful Thinking. The author seems very interested in being politically pragmatic, which I am not interested [...]

  13. [...] > Is it Better to Be a Creative Generalist or a Specialist? [...]