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Businesses these days like to sort professionals into one of two camps–generalist or specialist. What are the pros and cons of each, and where can we see both groups cooperating with each other in scripture? Which one is best for you? That’s up this week in Episode 38 of the Faithful on the Clock podcast.
Being a generalist or specialist can influence your career and interactions to a high degree.
Specialists can get hired for their expertise. They have less competition for jobs and have the potential to be paid more for their skills, but they also have to update their skills and run the risk of becoming obsolete if they don’t adapt.
Generalists take a broad view of the workplace. They are able to see how everyone interconnects and subsequently can be great leaders. But they are easier to replace and have to prove their value.
You are not “stuck” in one group or the other. Specialists can become generalists and generalists can learn to specialize.
The building of the tabernacle in Exodus, along with guidance from Romans, shows that both specialists and generalists are important and that both groups need to work together to serve God.
To decide which path is best for you, examine your preferences and habits. If you don’t mind working a long time for something and have good focus, and if you don’t have a lot of interests, specializing might be better. If you like organizing people, enjoy learning all the time, and are energized by being the one in control of the big picture, generalization might be better.
Examine your work preferences and habits. Think about whether you lean toward generalization or specialization.
Set at least one short- and long-term goal based on your conclusion to the above call-to-action.
What’s coming up next:
Loyalty is half the battle for any successful professional or company. Episode 39 breaks down what building loyalty takes and why it needs to be a priority.
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Welcome, welcome, welcome, listeners. I’m your host, Wanda Thibodeaux, and once again, this is the Faithful on the Clock podcast, where we help Christian professionals get their work and faith aligned. The topic today is specialization versus generalization. Which is better in terms of how to approach your career? Let’s start the chat.
So I don’t know if you’re aware, you probably are, but there’s this big debate about whether people should be a generalist or a specialist at work. You know, the generalist, they kind of know a little bit of everything, whereas the specialist, they’re concentrated in just one area and are really an expert in it. And this is important because your decision to be a specialist or generalist really can influence how you set your career up, the goals you have, and it makes a difference in how organizations are going to interact with you over time. And I think understanding whether someone is a generalist or specialist, that can really inform your ability to empathize and resolve conflicts well.
Now, let’s look at being a specialist first. The big advantage with doing this is that you have the ability to really go in depth on something. And ultimately, that becomes a differentiator for you. People are going to trust you and you’ll have some power in the organization specifically because you’ve got the extra knowledge and experience you do, and that’s potentially going to open up jobs where you can apply your skills in really targeted ways. LinkedIn, they show that most of the jobs that are growing really fast are specialist jobs. And since there aren’t a ton of specialists, you won’t have as much competition. BUT, the number of jobs you have might be smaller because your expertise is so concentrated, and in that regard, there was a Harvard Business Review study that actually found that specialists, sure, they can make really good money. Recruiters often pay a premium for them because of what they can do. But the researchers found offers sometimes were up to $50,000 less for specialists compared to generalists. So I don’t want you to be misguided and think, “Oh, if I specialize, that’s a guarantee I’m gonna make tons more money.” It’s just, it’s not. It’s also not as easy to pivot. You know, you only do one thing, what do you do if that area isn’t as relevant anymore? I think that’s one thing you really have to be aware of, especially with the way technology is changing. There was a Forbes article that pointed out that a lot of the more repetitive specialist jobs, machines are handling a lot of those now. Then there are costs, too, because specialists often have to get extra degrees or certifications. The certifications, those are starting to gain favor over the degrees, but either way, that training generally isn’t free. You’re gonna need to stay up to date on your subject area all the time, too.
So generalists, everything I just said about the specialists, you basically say, scratch that, reverse it. And the benefit with being a generalist is that you have a broader perspective about a lot of things. Organizations usually really like that because it lets you kind of see how all the wheels are spinning and why everything matters. You don’t get tunnel vision about things. So as a generalist, you’re in a lot better position to really lead. This is where, you know, entrepreneurs, CEOs, all the time, they keep that big picture view, and they’re able to see how everybody fits and where the business needs the specialists, and they trust those specialists to handle the details, rather than trying to know every little thing about every area. That said, you know, not everybody is a leader. I’m just gonna say that. I think everyone has the potential to lead, absolutely. But you get to decide what leadership level you want, and not everybody wants to be zoomed out the way generalists are. That’s OK. But generalists, if you go in that direction, because you have information about so many things, it’s pretty easy to switch gears to something else if that floats your boat. The downside is that you really have to work hard to show your value to the company, because you don’t have really specific concentration areas. You know, it’s easier for someone else to come in and take your spot. And then, it can be pretty tiring to keep up in so many things. So you’ve gotta have a lot of energy to make it work.
Now, my view on this is, it’s not that generalists or specialists are quote unquote, better or worse, OK? Organizations absolutely need people on both sides of that aisle. And for that matter, there are a lot of people who start out on one side of the aisle and then decide based on what God’s calling them to do, that that’s not the right path. So if you’ve been specializing, you don’t have to stick with that, and if you’re a generalist, there’s nothing stopping you from going in depth once you find something you’re totally called to do. But you have to understand that you’re gonna have different responsibilities, different challenges and advantages, and you have to be willing to put in the work to make that transition happen in a way that everybody can feel good about. You really do have to change your mindset as you go forward.
So one example here that shows that both generalists and specialists have value is during the building of the tabernacle in Exodus 31, and also Exodus 35. And this is a great example where God had given people talents to handle very specific jobs. But then you’ve still got somebody overseeing all of that. Moses was at the head of Israel, and he was there giving the commands for the skilled workers to come and do their jobs. And they had to work together to get the result God wanted. So that should tell you two things. First, God’s gonna equip you if He wants you to do something specific, and secondly, there needs to be humility in either direction. You're a specialist, you gotta respect the generalist, because they’re gonna pull everybody together and help you understand how you fit. You’re a generalist, well, then you gotta respect the expertise of those below you and not abuse your power. And we can kind of see this a little better in Romans 12: 4-6. And that says, “For as in one body, we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.” You know, Christ is overseeing the church, and we shouldn’t see ourselves as any better or any less useful than our neighbor just because God’s given us a certain ability or responsibility. And I like that because even though it’s a reminder toward humility, we also can be proud of the specific function we’ve got and know it matters.
I just wanna kind of wrap up by giving you a couple of tips to decide whether a generalist or specialist role might be better for you. I think it’s beneficial to look at your habits, your tendencies, and be honest about how you work. If you’re the kind of person, you know, you can focus for hours, you don’t mind repetition, maybe you’re not interested in a ton of different things, specializing is probably gonna be a better fit. And more broadly, are you the kind of person who leans toward more immediate gratifications, or are you somebody who’s willing to be dedicated to something over the long haul? Specializing, a lot of the time you have to work a long time before you really have enough expertise, so it’s not an overnight deal. But if you find yourself always wanting to learn something new, you like being social and getting everybody together, you don’t mind taking the helm more, you’d probably be a pretty good generalist. Me, I probably am a little more of a generalist, you know, I’m constantly asking my husband to just give me the broad strokes about stuff when we get into a conversation. I feel like if I don’t have those broad strokes I won’t really be able to put the details into any sort of context. But at the same time, I don’t know, I’m still pretty committed to my writing and music. I’ve been doing those things forever and a day. So if you want to lump me with the specialists, those would be my expertise areas. And like I said, you can move from one side of the aisle to the other over time.
OK. So you know what’s comin’. Let’s just take a moment and pray together. Join me here, would you?
Lord, the people listening out there today, you know the plans you have for them. And I know that no matter what role you call them to play, it has value. Help us see each other as really being on the same team regardless of whether we generalize or go the specialist route, you know, don’t let us have pride take over about what we’re doing and let it divide us. May we always respect each other to do the absolute best we can. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
That is all I have to say about it, people. Next week, I’m going to be giving you a recipe to cook up your own loyalty, whether that’s with customers, people in your network, or partners and investors. Before I drop that show, there’s some exciting news in that Captivate, who is our podcast host, they are actually introducing a new feature where you can leave tips and buy goodies from podcasters right on the specific podcast website. So if you’re listening, maybe you’re not ready to become a Patreon member but you want to still support the show, that’s a great option to check out that’s a little more flexible. You can go look at our site, faithfulontheclock.captivate.fm, to test that out and let me know you like what I’m doing. I hope you’ll do that, and until next time, be blessed.
Faithful on the Clock is a podcast dedicated to ensuring your faith and work align. You won’t find mantras or hacks here--just scripture-based insights to help you grow yourself, your company, and your relationship with God. If you want out of the worldly hamster wheel and want to work with purpose, then this is the show for you. Hosted by freelance business writer Wanda Thibodeaux.
Wanda Marie Thibodeaux is a freelance writer based in Eagan, MN. Since 2006, she has worked with a full range of clients to create website landing pages, product descriptions, articles, professional letters, and other content. She also served as a daily columnist at Inc.com for three years, where she specialized in content on business leadership, psychology, neuroscience, and behavior.
Currently, Thibodeaux accepts clients through her website, Takingdictation.com. She is especially interested in motivational psychology, self-development, and mental health.