Business strategy

Specialist or Generalist?

A few days ago, I was asked what my speciality was in copywriting. It’s a question I’m often asked, and a fair enough question. It’s just not easy for me to answer.

The reality is that I don’t specialise. If I were going to choose to concentrate on areas I love, I suppose it would be history and literature. I’m not likely to make a living out of those, though, so I write about whatever I’m asked to.

That’s not settling for second best, though. Although it’s partly necessity, I love writing about topics I’d never have thought of choosing, and occasionally topics I’ve never even heard of. Because that means research, and research means learning something. A day when I don’t learn something is a day wasted, and having to research obscure (for me) topics for clients makes it easier not to waste the day.

I suppose most of us are naturally either specialists or generalists, although like most binary definitions it’s not really as simple as that. Still, I think we tend to lean one way or the other, and it can be difficult to understand the other option.

Back in the 18th century, the poet Alexander Pope suggested that “A little learning is a dangerous thing”. I’ve always considered that nonsense — it’s dangerous if you don’t recognise that it’s a little learning, but knowledge is never bad in itself, only in how it may be used.

On the other hand, specialising has been characterised as knowing more and more about less and less, until you know everything about nothing. There’s something in that, but of course we need specialists. If I ever need to have open-heart surgery, I hope it’s being done by someone who’s specialised in cardiac surgery. I wouldn’t care whether or not he or she can make furniture, discuss Sumerian civilisation or play the guitar.

Still, I think I’m mainly a generalist, and I enjoy that. I have my own specific interests, of course, but I love dabbling in everything from cricket to quantum mechanics. And it does help my business that I find it fairly easy to pick up at least the basics of a wide range of topics.

Specialist or generalist — which are you?

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