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  1. #1
    Senior Member LunarMoon's Avatar
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    Default The Specialist vs The Generalist

    I commonly hear the value of being well rounded or of giving our children a well rounded education, but have never heard any reasoning behind this. Ironically, the latter of these statements are made even as we as a society become more specialized. It used to be that you could be a decent farmer, a decent seamstress, and somewhat of an entrepreneur who sells crops at the market. This isn’t possible anymore. Nowadays we funnel people into 4 year tracks in order to obtain a degree in a specific field. The most sought after and well paid professions, such as that of a lawyer, scientist, or doctor, require up to 8 years or more of constant study.

    And to a certain extent it seems that being well rounded was never actually useful, though increased industrialization since the 18th century has made it particularly obsolete. But even in the Pre-Industrial Era many youths would be sent off to apprentice themselves under a master beginning in the early teens. Knights would begin their training as a squire as young, prepubescent boys, and would only receive their promotion in their early 20s. And we mustn’t forget the fact that the oft-quoted phrase “Jack of All Trades, Master of None”, originated as early as the 18th century. How then is it that being a generalist or an individual who is balanced in multiple qualities has become so valued as of late? At least from an ideological perspective; as stated above, society has always supported the specialist economically, regardless of what it may say.
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  2. #2
    Honor Thy Inferior Such Irony's Avatar
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    Given the choice I'd rather be a generalist than a specialist. I find being a specialist to be rather confining. I think I'd get really bored after awhile if I had to constantly study one narrow subject. I think my profession (librarian) is quite generalist in nature. You never know what sorts of reference questions your library users are going to ask you next. It helps to know a little bit about alot of things.
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  3. #3
    Administrator highlander's Avatar
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    Specialists in a high demand area are very valued in today's economy. The problem with specialization though is that what's hot right now might not be so hot five years from now. Additionally, when something is in high demand, people funnel into it to fill the gap in supply/demand. Being a lawyer or doctor - there are a great many specialties within each of those and they are subject to those same laws of supply and demand.

    I think the generalist who is a truly exceptional performer will always be in some level of demand. Probably the best thing though is to possess the gift of versatility combined with a couple of specialty areas that you're deep in. As things change, you need to develop new specialty skills to fit current and future market demands. It's not easy.
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    . Blank's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by highlander View Post
    Specialists in a high demand area are very valued in today's economy. The problem with specialization though is that what's hot right now might not be so hot five years from now. Additionally, when something is in high demand, people funnel into it to fill the gap in supply/demand. Being a lawyer or doctor - there are a great many specialties within each of those and they are subject to those same laws of supply and demand.

    I think the generalist who is a truly exceptional performer will always be in some level of demand. Probably the best thing though is to possess the gift of versatility combined with a couple of specialty areas that you're deep in. As things change, you need to develop new specialty skills to fit current and future market demands. It's not easy.
    This. Also: If you become specialized and your field of specialization suddenly becomes redundant, what are you going to do?

    It's like telling the college football player to only focus on playing ball since he will become a millionaire when he goes pro.
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  5. #5
    No Cigar Litvyak's Avatar
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    It's a matter of perspective. You have right, from an economic point of view, but individual progress requires a wider horizon. I believe specialists above a certain level need to comprehend and utilize foreign concepts to be succesful at their work. I also think a generalist or multiple generalists are required to lead the specialists for maximum efficiency. The renaissaince man became a role model because of our increasing insecurity while comparing our level of knowledge to the vast knowledge of humanity.

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    The sudden prevalence of the generalist is because people like to make choices on those two mighty rational scientific principles of 'this is boring I don't want to do it' and 'fuzzy thinking'. Of course, when all of those generalists are putting out cash hand over fist to specialists they will have to act for self protection by specialising themselves.

    Hopefully people will come to their senses in a few years, much like as appears to be currently happening with the pre-recession mood where business was seemingly incapable of stomaching those who might point out not to be optimistic but realistic.

    Society likes to paint every child as a polymath in waiting. It is really a great way to ruin a childhood and adolescence by demanding someone spends a lot of time on activities that are actually destructive in honing in on core interests and skill sets.

  7. #7
    Glowy Goopy Goodness The_Liquid_Laser's Avatar
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    It's better to be a specialist than a generalist, but there are two ways to be a specialist. One way is to be a cog in a machine. You assume the role of a specialized interchangable part, and that can feel confining.

    The other way is to specialize according to your talents. In doing this you are becoming that which is uniquely you. And in doing so you specialize in a way that no one else could possibly replicate. This type of specialization is freeing rather than confining.
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    Ever heard of the Kakapo?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kakapo
    [YOUTUBE="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONkf6EZdjEc&feature=related"]Douglas Adams on the Kakapo[/YOUTUBE]

    Specialization is a normal and important evolutionary process, but so are changes of environment and the subsequent extinction of the redundant specialist.

    We live in fast changing times and that means that the niche you just spend years preparing for might already have disappeared. Specialization is great in a stable environment, but kills when that environment changes too quickly.
    So what people mean when they recommend generalization, I think, is in fact adoptability (not the same thing!)
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  9. #9
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    Quote Originally Posted by LunarMoon View Post
    At least from an ideological perspective; as stated above, society has always supported the specialist economically, regardless of what it may say.
    That's not true. Generalism especially in scholarship was valued up til the mid to late 19th century.

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