I've always held the belief that finding a specific niche is one of the best things you can do for your business, so when Erin came along and pitched this blog post idea, I was intrigued. I had never even considered the benefits of being a generalist, or why this might be a better fit for some freelancers.
If you're in two minds about whether or not to specialize in one thing or be a jack of all trades, read Erin's post below on the benefits of being a generalist! I'll be posting my thoughts on being a specialist soon so stick around! :)
Today’s popular opinion is that you need to be a specialist. You should invest your time into mastering your niche and becoming an expert. But what if your interests are varied and you consider yourself a multipotentialite? Can you succeed as a freelancer with a vast knowledge and many skills or do you need to hone in on one thing and perfect it?
Good news for those with many feathers in their caps. Being a generalist is a great thing. You should take pride in your varied interests and start promoting yourself as a jack or jill of all trades.
Here are some reasons why the odds are in the generalist’s favor.
01. Generalists Are Competent In Many Fields
Being a generalist means that you have numerous interests and can cater to different clients. You have a multitude of skills and knowledge to fall back on when a client needs a variety of tasks completed.
Competence in many fields outweighs expertise in one.
Knowing a little about a lot of things can be more beneficial than knowing a lot about one thing. This is especially true if you are trying to work with a variety of people in different industries. Your ability to work in numerous apps and programs and put on many hats would be more beneficial than only offering one service. Doing only one thing will guarantee that the client has to go to numerous people to get their needs met. If you designed websites and wrote copy, you’d be able to provide a full experience, earn more, and book jobs for either task.
Some positions, like virtual assistant, require you to be a generalist. You wouldn’t be a very good VA if you limited your offerings to one task. Virtual assistants should be well-versed in a number of subjects, but aren’t expected to be experts in any one field. Some VAs will market themselves toward their particular skill set, but most do a variety of work. The best VAs will be continuous learners striving to stay on top of trends in their client’s industry. They will look for new and better apps and tools to upgrade their skill set.
Generalists are often owners of one-person shops. They handle a multitude of tasks for their business. Although they may market their talents as designers, programmers, coaches or writers, they also perform tasks that fall under the umbrella of virtual assistance, marketing, public relations, and bookkeeping.
02. Generalists See The Big Picture
Specialists can be so mired in their own viewpoint that they don’t consider alternatives. A person who has done a variety of work will be able to spot trends and areas that connect. In fact, when the University of Pennsylvania's Professor Phillip Tetlock studied whether experts or non-experts made better predictions, he found the non-experts were the best bet. He said, “it’s better to know many things, draw from an eclectic array or traditions and accept ambiguity and contradictions.”
While you may want a specialist to answer a yes or no question, the experience of a generalist can provide an overview of the whole scenario.
“Leaders tend to be generalists. They can shift course and manage multiple areas. They’re more flexible.” - Nicole Torres
03. Generalists Stay Curious
Generalists want to know a little bit about everything. They see the world as a place full of opportunities to try new things. Their sense of curiosity makes them life-long learners. They take the things they’ve learned and apply their new skills and talents to their list of offerings.
You might be a generalist if:
- You’re constantly looking for new online courses to strengthen your skills or add new offerings to your portfolio.
- You want to know about the latest resources and tools that can make your job easier, improve your productivity or free up some of your time
- You find yourself looking into topics that are not related to what you’re doing. You may find yourself going down a Wikipedia wormhole when researching an unrelated topic.
- You are good at making connections between your current offerings and things you could offer in the future or new ventures
“Intellectually curious men become generalists. Intellectually lazy men settle for being specialists.” - Mokokoma
04. Generalists Appeal To More People
Being commercial can have a negative connotation to some people, but ultimately, being relatable and easy-to-digest is what wins clients and earns money. There’s nothing keeping you from being commercial in your client work and off-the-wall in your personal pursuits.
Generalists are relatable. They can speak to the client on their level.
Specialists can be intimidating to work with. As a person with limited knowledge on a subject, would you want to talk to the absolute expert on the material? It could make you feel like a kindergartener talking to a phD. You may feel like you need a higher level of base knowledge before you can discuss the topic. We’ve all had an experience in school or the working world where an expert explained a concept and it went completely over our heads. A generalist can give you an idea of the subject matter without getting too technical.
05. Generalist Make More Money
A study of 400 MBA students who graduated from top colleges found that “specialists were definitely penalized by the market. Not only were they less likely to receive multiple offers, but they were offered smaller signing bonuses. In some cases the specialists earned up to $48,000 less than their generalist peers.”
Even though a specialist may be worth more in their one chosen field, they may find it harder to find work. The person who has only studied marketing throughout their undergraduate and graduate career may not get as good of an offer as the person who has studied public relations, marketing, and human resources. The person who takes an internship or job slightly off of the beaten path will be rewarded for their breadth of experience.
For freelancers, offering a variety of skills allows you to demand a higher rate. Sometimes freelancers can low-ball themselves in order to try to get clients. You don’t want to be part of a race to the bottom. If you’re a generalist, realize that you’re bringing a variety of skills to the table and should be compensated accordingly.
Experts Are Limited, But Anyone Can Be A Generalist
In order to be an expert, you need a huge amount of knowledge in your discipline. Though it’s been disproven, Malcolm Gladwell suggested that a person needs to study or practice for 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. Scientists are now trying to figure out the X factor that makes someone an expert in conjunction with practice or studying. But no one would disagree that a specialist dedicates a huge portion of their lives to their subject material.
The amount of experts in any given field is small - and rightly so! Not everyone wants to dedicate the bulk of their learning and experiences to one subject. This makes the level of competition high and the effort it takes to breakthrough immense. If you wanted to be the foremost authority on social media, you’d have to dethrone experts with extremely high profiles. However, if you want social media to be something you’re good at, along with a multitude of other tasks, then you’re not going to have to expend as much effort to meet that goal.
Not only that, trying to be an expert can make you feel like an imposter. Being an expert has such a lofty connotation in our society that trying to claim the title can make you feel like a fake. At what point can you call yourself an expert? After 2 years? 5? 15? A lifetime? Each person you ask will give a different answer.
It’s normal to see someone in the social media field with 2+ years of experience calling themselves an expert or guru while someone in academia might not claim the title until several years into their tenure. Instead of perpetually fighting off imposter syndrome, choose to be a generalist. Your talents won’t be hemmed in by one single focus.
Being a generalist will get you far. As a freelancer, being a generalist can be a boon to your business. You can offer a variety of tasks and be a one-stop shop.
Generalists see the big picture, find more clients, make more money, and are more appealing to the masses.
If you’ve been put off by the term in the past, does this make you think about it differently?
Think about the intersection of your talents and interests and ask yourself - do I want to box myself by being an expert or expand my potential by choosing to be a generalist? We'd love to hear your answer and thoughts in the comments!