Traditionally, specialization has been the path toward making more money. A brain surgeon can make more money than a physician who is in general practice. An engineer that specializes in building long-span bridges can make more than a general engineer.
This makes sense because the more specific a customer’s need, the fewer people there are normally going to be to fulfill that need, and when there are fewer people to choose from, the price will migrate higher.
Based on this, some of the most common advice for making more money is to develop more specialized skills.
However, another shift that has occurred over the past 5 to 20 years is that the new tools are increasing the amount that can be done by a single person. For example, I was talking to an airline a few years ago where the core management team consisted of about 5 executives and a single administrative assistant. 20 years ago, each executive would have had one or more secretaries. 50 or 60 years ago, the executives might not have even been able to type for themselves.
This shift is putting a certain practical limit on specialization when it is devoid of any broad-based skill. This is worth noting as you manage your career. Specialization is still a very good way to increase your lifetime earnings, but you have to be careful to make sure you have a foundation of broader skills as well.
For example, a computer programmer who is an expert at one particular language, but has to rely on someone else to set up a computer and get the tools installed to even be able to program is going to have limited potential. An executive who is very smart, but doesn’t know how to use a word-processor or fax machine may find it difficult to get much done if he tries to switch to a different job where they may not have the support staff around to do those things.
The point is that while specialization can be very valuable, a broad base of knowledge is more important than ever and gives you flexibility to handle shifts and changes in the job market. You need not only enough specialization to be valuable, but also enough broad skills to support yourself in doing that valuable work.
If your skillset puts you in a position where you are only valuable and productive when you have a number of people around to do support work, it might be worth considering if you need to broaden your skills to keep yourself relevant, employable and valuable.
An important distinction is that there is a difference between having supporting workers who help you focus your time on your valuable skill and requiring supporting workers because you don’t know how to do anything else. Choosing not to do a task and choosing to delegate it to others is not the same thing as having no idea how to do a task and requiring others to do it for you.
I’ve heard that at Microsoft years ago, everyone reported to someone who could do their job, which means that by the time you go to the top where Bill Gates was, he could probably do the jobs of pretty much everyone in the company. That is a pretty broad set of skills, but most likely that was one of the things that made Bill Gates so successful. He could delegate in order to get more done–not because he had no idea how to do the work he was delegating.
I wish I were more capable of specializing on a small set of skills. I think some of us have a hard time focusing in on one area of expertise and we’re just wired that way, while others have an easier time of focusing in on one thing. I can justify it though, since I think it does matter what your goals are for your life and your work (which at least for me may be influenced by that inability to specialize). It would seem that entrepreneurs generally need a broader scope of skills to be successful, but if I were more career oriented and trying to work my way up through a company, specialization totally makes sense.
As a generalist, I am encouraged though by the apparent shift towards more generalization in some areas currently. It will be interesting to see this play out more with the continued rise in freelancing and the “gig economy”. Perhaps that will just mean that those who truly do specialize will be all the more valuable.