Do NOT try to become a specialist

da VinciYou often read: "stick to one thing and become the best you can be". This seems to make sense: in a competitive world like ours, the person with the best skills in a certain field is best equiped to get the job. So why should you even want to be a generalist instead of a specialist? There are a few good reasons for this, especially when you operate a one-person business. Let's explore these reasons in more detail:

As I wrote in an earlier post: in today's world you're often forced to do many things yourself: complete your projects; manage your business; do your marketing (getting and keeping clients); etcetera. This already forces you to know about many more subjects apart from your own field. And even if you don't have the skills to do a specific task, knowing about it greatly enhances communication with those you might hire to do it for you.

One of the reasons you started to run your own business was probably to escape the rigidity that's inherent in so many jobs. So why not take full advantage of this freedom and expand your services and thus increase your income by expanding your business in new fields. Many entrepreneurial types simply need this kind of variety to stay motivated and interested (I know I do!).

The more varied your experiences are, the more your creativity is fueled. You add experiences to a "database", ready to draw from in any situation. After all, an important aspect of creativity is to relate the previously unrelated. So, the more you know, the greater your resources for creative thinking.

Revenue / Saving
Learning a new language for example can open up a completely new market! Again: you don't need to be a specialist in that language. Stop learning once you acquired the ability to communicate effectively. And this is just one example. A personal example from the "saving-side": because I know xhtml and css, and have done some programming, I was able to design and implement this site myself, saving me the cost of hiring a developer.

And of course: personal development
It's plain fun to learn new things and put them into practice. But more importantly: being human is basically being a generalist. Think of all the roles you fulfill in life, beside your work. You'll see the value of being a generalist right away!

Now, being a generalist does not mean switching from one thing to the other. To really take advantage of being a generalist, you must concentrate and have the discipline to really learn the important aspects of what it is you are learning. You need to put to practice the things you studied. Also, being a generalist means you can't really compete with a specialist in his own field alone; but since you are a generalist, your skills are broader than the specialist's which can still give you a huge advantage.

If you're serious about becoming a generalist, I recommend you read "How to think like Leonardo da Vinci" by Michael Gelb. In this book, Gelb coins seven principles to improve your thinking, learning and creativity. He based these points on da Vinci's notebooks, inventions and of course his artworks. There are many exercises in this book, and they are all fun to do. No drudgery here! The book won't turn you into a genius like Leonardo da Vinci, but I know from experience that you can get a lot more out of your life with it.

I'd like to leave you with these quotes from some favourite books:

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."
(Robert A. Heinlein - Time enough for love)

"Above all else, the mentat must be a generalist, not a specialist. It is wise to have decisions of great moment monitored by generalists. Experts and specialists lead you quickly into chaos. They are a source of useless nit-picking, the ferocious quibble over a comma. The mentat-generalist, on the other hand, should bring to decision-making a healthy common sense. He must not cut himself off from the broad sweep of what is happening in his universe. He must remain capable of saying: “There’s no real mystery about this at the moment. This is what we want now. It may prove wrong later, but we’ll correct that when we come to it.” The mentat-generalist must understand that anything which we can identify as our universe is merely a part of larger phenomena. But the expert looks backward; he looks into the narrow standards of his own specialty. The generalist looks outward; he looks for living principles, knowing full well that such principles change, that they develop. It is to the characteristics of change itself that the mentat-generalist must look. There can be no permanent catalogue of such change, no handbook or manual. You must look at it with as few preconceptions as possible."
(Frank Herbert - Dune Messiah)

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