Doctor, Specialist, Generalist, Jay Bildstein

Be a Generalist Too

How often are we commanded by career counselors to, “Specialize! Be a specialist!”?

As the base of human knowledge increases and technology evolves, the accepted wisdom of becoming an expert at something seems right on. However, I tend to remember the saying, “An expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing,” when I hear people extolling the virtues of becoming an expert.

Still and all, to excel in the labor force today, specializing makes sense. We see this in all kinds of fields. Take medicine for example. Long gone are the days of the one stop shop doctor, who focused on curing just about anything that ailed you. Most medical doctors today are specialists. In fact, it seems like many are subspecialists. For example, orthopedics is a specialized branch of medicine. Yet within that field, there are those individuals who focus on knees or hands or shoulders.

So, we are not simply in the age of the specialist. We are in the age of the subspecialist. One challenge, however, of so much specialization is that if an individual does not have a broad knowledge base, it may be difficult to apply their specialized knowledge within a proper context.

Therefore, though society has arguably become more complex, and the need for individuals with specialized knowledge is obvious, it is also obvious that we need to be sound generalists as well. We need general knowledge if we hope to apply our specialized skills within a framework that will truly add value to society.

And when I suggest being a generalist, I am not suggesting that you simply develop broad knowledge within your field, in addition to your area of specialized knowledge. No. What we all need to do is develop broader knowledge about the human condition as a whole.

I might become an absolute master of hand knitting sweaters with complicated patterns. If I decide to open shop in an area that is continually hot and humid, my sweater knitting skills will likely end up for naught. I need to have general knowledge about life – knowledge of the weather in this case – if I hope to succeed.

Yes, the aforementioned is a somewhat silly example. Hopefully, however, its silliness makes a point. We need skills. We need specialized skills. We need to develop mastery with our specialized skills. But we need to be generalists too. Otherwise, we will never be able to get the most out of our skills, because we will lack the ability to give context to them.

Specialize, but be a good generalist too. That is the lesson.


*Authors note: You might see this column pop up online in a newspaper, under the name Both Sides. I am publishing this column here first at For a bunch of years, I have been writing newspaper columns. Since my columns have received a good response on CYInterview, I thought I would share it with you. Hope you enjoy.

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