Person drawing out a plan on paper to create a specialization in business strategy

The Art of Being a Generalist

By Thursday August 4th, 2022

While there will always be value in being an expert in your niche, you can also benefit from being a generalist. Instead of focusing your energy on building your strengths in one area, consider sharpening your skills in a select few places.

Embracing a generalist approach

In career development and business, the ability to learn many things and apply them to one focused pursuit as you age is a salient approach. Some may say specializing, or even obsessing over, one single thing is the way to become an expert and succeed. However, I believe a more long-term generalist approach has not been given the respect it deserves — especially in the worlds of business and sports. It’s not only important to consider the value of a generalist approach but to understand that there’s a higher level of expertise that can be unlocked once you’ve combined multiple skills and experiences.

The generalist mindset 

All businesses want to own and control their realm. But that’s easier said than done. Securing a sustained defensible position in the market can rarely be achieved from a single angle or based on a single attribute. Unless you are truly the only patented technology or solution in your space that can do what you do, you must create separation or differentiation by utilizing a multi-dimensional approach — building a generalist capability at the intersection of multiple skills vs. a deep specialization in a single skill. Picture the center hub where multiple spokes come together. There lies your niche that you can now build your positioning around.

In the book Range, David Epstein contends that over-specialization has its limits. A generalist approach leads to more creative, agile pursuits that are more difficult to replicate. 

For a business that chooses to combine multiple ingredients to create its niche, it may be a longer and more difficult road. There is a saying that 10,000 hours doing something makes you an expert in that task or topic. To master an intersection, it may mean 40,000 or 50,000 total hours across a variety of topics that intertwine in your pursuits and together unlock a level of value to your audience or end customer that can’t be achieved with a single specialty.

Graph showing the value of unlocking expertise as a generalist

Unlocking the second tier of expertise as a generalist

At some point, as you accrue the experience and knowledge across multiple skills, you find yourself amongst fewer comparable competitors — your “recipe” is the blend of multiple ingredients, making it a less common combination. One that takes much longer to build, perfect, and effectively communicate to potential buyers, but the same level of difficulty applies to competitors attempting to mimic your recipe. You have found your intersection, and with it have built a moat to protect your position. 

Success comes from unlikely combinations

In the world of sports, the combination of size, speed, and strength, used in the right combination, can be unstoppable. It can unlock additional levels of capability, showing us artistry and performance that hasn’t been seen before. 

Jordan Mailata, a rising star in the NFL, is a great example. For most of his teenage years and into his twenties, he was a standout rugby player in Australia. In a shift that most considered a long shot, Jordan transitioned to the NFL, bringing his endurance, size and speed (for a 6’8” 365 lb man) to become a versatile, raw talent to the offensive line of the Philadelphia Eagles. In just a few years, he has risen to the top tier of offensive linemen in the league. With a few more years under his belt, I expect Jordan to be in a league of his own as a left tackle in the NFL. A shoo-in hall of famer. His approach as a generalist at the intersection of multiple skills and advantages, will drive his success. 

Jordan is one example of how accruing skills in different areas can be combined for success. But in other fields like healthcare or construction, when you combine years of experience across many categories, your value to the patient or customer can put you in a field of your own. 

How to stand out as a generalist

There is another tier to aim for as a generalist. Even when you’ve unlocked that next level by combining a few skill areas and identifying your intersection, it must provide greater value and efficiency to your audience or customer than having 3-4 individual specialists working collaboratively. The positioning of your generalist niche is crucial at this next level to achieve success. You must be able to communicate the value of your generalist capacity (answering the “why should I care”) in a succinct and memorable way. 

Graph showing the value of communicating generalist skills

If you can successfully communicate your value as a generalist, you can stand head and shoulders above the crowd.

To develop a successful positioning as a generalist, you must have the combination of skills AND know how to communicate the value that combination brings to your customer. Instead of focusing your messaging on your combination of skills, center your value more on the customers’ problems and what your combined set of skills can achieve for them. 

Customer Problem: I have dragon problems in my kingdom, but I am unsure of the extent.

Table showing the value of positioning your skills as a generalist

The power of clear positioning and showing your audience the value you bring to the table.

Without clear positioning, a generalist looks a lot like a dabbler and never reaches their full potential.

The difference between a generalist and a dabbler

18 years of experience and learning has led me to an intersection. I’ve been advised many times over the years to specialize, in more or less words. It was the lack of focus/specialization that was holding me back. It’s taken me a long time to find an intersection, and not a crowded one but a quiet place to build and grow. 

Writing, marketing, business knowledge, visual storytelling, fundraising. Working across many industries and with hundreds of different businesses and business models has offered me a chance to see similarities and patterns. Things I would have never seen if I continued down a single highway for 18 years. 

I am a growth consultant for small businesses. Businesses that need a marketing partner but also a business strategist. I can see all the pieces and know what to recommend, what a roadmap should look like, and how to navigate the inevitable challenges that come with going from $2M to $5M or $5M to $10M in revenue.

A die-hard specialist would look at the list of talents and experiences and say, master of none. Dabbler. Perhaps, but I believe there is one key difference between a generalist who has found and leveraged their intersection and one who dabbles in many hobbies and interests. The successful generalist has found a purpose behind the intersection, a unique offering that also satisfies the needs of their target audience that a specialist cannot provide. But without clear messaging around the generalist’s value creation, the generalist is no more than a dabbler.

The generalist road is a long one, but it’s worth it.

The opportunities that unveil themselves when you can venture across boundaries, combine ingredients, apply learnings and match patterns across completely different realms and experiences, is finding the intersection that a single-dimensional specialist will never arrive at. 

I believe there is power in finding an intersection; a unique recipe that creates a position of strength. The future is bright for the patient generalist, assuming the generalist can clearly communicate the value of their recipe. It may be the longest road, with the most questions, but it’s worth it if you can find a great recipe and master it your own way.

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About the Author

Jason is co-founder and CEO of Brolik, a digital agency in Philadelphia. As an entrepreneur, Jason is passionate about helping other business owners navigate the complicated journey of owning a business and developing marketing strategies to grow their brand.
Follow @jaybrew on Twitter or connect with Jason on LinkedIn or Google+