Should I generalize or specialize?

Imagine you are building your dream house. It’s a massive project – built with only the best materials, crafted to perfection. (remember, you’re imagining here…money is no object).

One of the items you’ve always dreamed of is a solid marble entryway – grandiose and beautiful. So, you call around and find a few different options. One is a contractor that does all kinds of installations – gutters, driveways, houses, decks, you name it. The other is a prestigious Italian marble artisan, specializing in luxury marbles and entryways.

Who do you choose? Probably the artisan.

Now, imagine you’ve lived there for a few years and a few things have broken – the stain is wearing out on your deck, your doorframes and sagging, and you need a toilet replaced. You could hire a specialist for each of these things, or you could hire Jake the Handyman who can fix anything you need.

Sometimes, it’s helpful to have a generalist.

This is one of the eternal struggles of the creative career…

Should you specialize in one thing or should you have a broad skillset?

If you are in a place right now where you feel pulled in multiple directions at once – feeling the pressure to master your current craft and at the same time, the desire, interest, and pressure to learn the newest software and experiment with new techniques… you aren’t alone.

The good news is, either way can work.

The bad news is, I can’t tell you want you should do.

As always, it depends. Who do you want to work for and who do you want to work with? What kind of work do you want to do?

This is something I’ve been working on figuring out for myself.

I’ve listened to and read plenty of material on why niching down (or specializing) is the best way to grow your career. And I don’t doubt it. You can charge higher prices and attract clients by being the best of the best at your specific task. If you enjoy becoming really really good at one thing – go for it. You can be very financially successful in this path.

Unfortunately, that’s not me. I would hate to focus on only one thing, no matter how “successful” that could make me.

I believe you can have a successful creative career with a broad skillset and I think that exact thing has been one of the key factors to growing my personal career.

I’m still in the middle of this process, so I don’t have it all figured out yet. But, I want to leverage my many interests and skills instead of tossing them aside to specialize in one thing.

Although you can gain a lot from a general skillset, you still have to be smart about it. I’m calling this approach the uniquely useful generalist. There’s nothing special or incredibly unique about this name – I just came up with it while writing this email. It’s based on various things I’ve learned from other people and heavily influenced by Seth Godin’s Linchpin.

The uniquely useful generalist

I’m defining the uniquely useful generalist as the uncommon combination of skills and interests that make you different,

You’ve probably heard the saying, “jack of all trades, master of none.” It is often used to point out the problems with generalizing – it’s hard to get really great at anything if you try to be good at everything. You might know how to design, and illustrate, and animate, and do some editing, and photography, and so on…but you aren’t amazing at any of them.

If you lean towards a broad skillset, maybe you’ve identified with this phrase to an extent. I know I have. But, there’s an adapted version of the saying that I prefer:

“jack of all trades, master of one.”

This is where I’ve found some traction in my personal career. Instead of tossing out the the variety of capabilities I have and am interested in, I decided to focus harder in one category and use the others to keep my motivation, interest, and learning sharp. I decided to focus in on motion design, especially 2D After Effects animation (the one thing I’d try to “master”), and leverage all the other things to make the rest of my career more interesting.

Since then, my interests in code, in business, in marketing, in editing, sound design, film, 3D, architecture, painting, music, and more have all contributed to my core offering.

So, even though I could do a lot of things, I marketed myself as doing one primary thing. It wasn’t until I started “specializing” in motion design, that my career started to gain some traction. I still did the other things, but only after building the initial trust and attraction with my “specialty”.

In summary

Market yourself like a specialist. Train yourself like a generalist. Put more, but not all, emphasis into a core focus, but learn as much as you can outside that. Use your variety of interests to make you better at your core and to make you a uniquely valuable asset to those you serve.

Is this approach guaranteed to work?

I can’t tell you exactly yet if it will work out, but my hypothesis is that it will. I guess it just depends what “work out” means. I hope that learning new lessons from other industries and applying them to my current projects will help me think more creatively, and help me differentiate my offering. I hope the energy I receive from trying new things and solving new problems will help me stay motivated and make this amazing opportunity to have a creative career, a long term possibility.

And I hope whatever you find out works best for you, you do the same! I’d love to hear how it goes.

My question for you:

What do you think about being generalist vs being a specialist? Have you seen more success either way?

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