Hi everyone it’s Sam Ovens.
And this is [Nick Fisher 00:00:10].
This is Consulting TV. On this channel we discuss things to do with business and like psychology and philosophy. So really the combination of the two and how that really is the answer to big success in entrepreneurship these days. Today we’re going to discuss a big topic which we’ve seen discussed all over the place like, is it better to be a specialist or a generalist? Some people think being a generalist is the one to do and some people think being a specialist is the one to do. Today we’re going to discuss it and give you the definitive answer. So let’s start.
So one of the big marketing topics I’ve seen debated on forums and online and in pieces like Ink, Forbes, Entrepreneur is, is it better to be a specialist or a generalist? I think it’s swung. People used to think you really needed to be a specialist in order to do something well and then for a while people have thought you needed to be a generalist and that things were getting too broad and that specialists can only do one thing. So what do you think? In this current market, in the year that we’re in, do you think it’s better to be a specialist or a generalist?
It’s a really interesting question because it implies there is a right answer and that it’s not something else which isn’t specialist or generalist. This is often how people get things wrong. They’re looking for that one thing, that one answer that once they get it right, everything will be fixed but it’s not as black and white and as clear as that. One of the analogies I’ve always liked is the man who chases two rabbits catches none. I like to reword that and say man has to chase two rabbits to figure out which one he wants to catch and then he should just go for that one rabbit.
If you think about this analogy, the man who chases two rabbits catches none so therefore the man should chase one rabbit and catch that one. What if when he catches it, he realizes he didn’t want that rabbit? So that’s the problem with that thinking. It’s like people believe you have to be a specialist but they don’t know what they need to be a specialist in until they’ve been a generalist in lots of things and figured out that one thing which they do want to specialize in.
So I think Google is exceptionally intelligent with how they do their hiring. So Google has this term called T-shaped people. They like to hire people who have a broad knowledge in a lot of different things like biology and like chemistry and engineering even philosophy, all of these different things. They like people who are broadly knowledgeable but then really, really exceptional at one thing in particular.
I think that’s really smart. That’s how all people should aim to live is to be broad in a lot of things but be exceptional in one. Because if you’re exceptional in one and you leave everything else out, you’re ignorant. There’s a lot of times throughout the day that you have to do a little task in these other areas and you can’t afford to have to always go and find someone who can do that, always find someone who can do that and that’s why there’s also the term like a full stack developer or a 10x developer. They’re ones that can move 10 times faster because when they have to touch another language or another interface, they can handle it but they’re exceptional at one language.
That’s really what I think everyone should aim to be in business is T-shaped. So they should know about marketing, finance, accounting. Then they should also know a lot about life like they should know about economics. They should know about law. A lot of people don’t know much about the law. You need to know some basics about that so you don’t have to go to a lawyer and get held up every time.
You should know a lot of things so you don’t have to go and see one every time. Same with accounting. You shouldn’t have to go and find someone. With marketing, you shouldn’t have to go out and find people. You should be broadly knowledgeable in a lot of things but then exceptional in one so that you’re seen as an expert in this one thing and you can crush everyone in this one thing, but you can also handle a lot of these other tasks if they jump into your day which they always do.
Now transitioning into marketing especially if you’re … let’s say if you’re a T-shaped marketer and you’re offering digital marketing services for a client at a consulting kind of structure. What does that look like if you’re a T-shaped marketer?
It is a good question. I think that way a T-shaped marketer these days would be they would know how to copywrite. They would also know what makes up good imagery like they would know what images work well, that know how to write good copy. They would know a bit about conversion rate optimization. They’d also know a bit about statistics and conversion rates. Then they’d also know a little bit about like coding. They’d know how to install scripts. They would also know a little bit about math and a little bit about excel and a little bit about a whole bunch of different things. Even human psychology because you have to get into the mind of the market to figure out what it wants.
So you have to really be good at all of these different things but then your one specialty might be Facebook ads. That you might have absolutely mastered Facebook ads and be like the best person in the world at it but being good at Facebook ads without knowing human psychology, you’re useless. Being good at Facebook ads without knowing basic math, without knowing copywriting, you can only go so far. So that’s what T-shape would mean for marketers these days.
Yeah and I absolutely agree. When people come into contact with you the first time, often what do you find? Is it more of a problem that they’re too general or they’re too specific and they’ve run themselves at the risk of exposing themselves if something in the market changes? If they’re looking to consult like what is the problem people run into when it comes to being a generalist or being too specific? Is it one or the other?
I’ve seen both but if I had to guess I would say that the one that’s most widespread right now is generalism. So like the swings depending on the era but right now there’s too many generalists. Right now there’s a lot of people who say, “I’m an internet marketer.” What on earth is that? The internet is pretty big so is marketing. I mean there could be a whole bunch of different stuff. People are also … I see businesses post job ads and they’re looking for a marketer. What is that? Marketing has evolved so much that now it has like 10,000 strands.
I think the people who I come across most often and who I observe are definitely generalists. They’ve read a bit about copywriting. They’ve read a bit about sales. They’ve might have read excels books or copy book. They might know a little bit about Facebook ads. They know a little bit about everything but they’re not outstanding at one thing. That pretty much means that you’re just a no one really. It’s better than being no good at things but it’s still not enough. That’s where I think Google now with the T-shaped people. It’s the worst situation would be to know nothing about anything.
The next best situation would be to know something about one thing. That’s still not very good. Then you could know something about a lot of things. Still not really good. You’re still not having any breakthroughs. Then there’s knowing a tremendous amount of one thing but nothing else. You’re still paralyzed in that position. The way where you really start to grow is when you know a lot or it’s when you know like a lot about a lot of things but you’re absolutely tremendous at one thing in particular. That’s when you’re dangerous. Like when you can do that, that’s when you’ll start to notice that you get like massive results for yourself, for your clients, for everyone.
Yeah I think most people would agree with that but when people are getting started it’s easy to catch shiny object syndrome and to chase after a bunch of different things. How many rabbits so to speak is too many rabbits? Chasing after two rabbits and then finding which one you want that sounds like a great strategy but I feel like most people probably end up chasing after 10 rabbits at once. It’s something that’s common.
I think that most things that you can possibly pursue at one time and manage is three. I do recommend to only ever pursue one, but when you’re starting out in business, you do have to do a little bit of … you have to have a couple of things moving. You can’t just go all in one thing. So I always think three things. So if you’re starting out in business, you should learn mindset like your psychology that is you can’t skip that. You also have to learn sales because that’s going to get you out and talking to people selling stuff. You also have to learn like marketing. Those would be the first three things I’d pursue. I would chase those three rabbits until you know a lot about them.
Then I’d probably add in business strategy after that. I’d learn a bit about that. Then I would go out and be kind of a generalist until I found that one thing which I was like, “This is it.” You need to do a broad range of things until you find something that you have a conviction on. It’s like how a lot of hedge funds and traders do it. They’re reading news all the time. Warren Buffett reads the news every day. He looks at all of these different companies to invest in but he might only pull the trigger on like one thing every five months.
In his books like I’ve read sometimes he doesn’t pull the trigger on something in two years. He’s patient. It’s like playing a game of poker. You don’t want to bet on a hand just because you get itchy. When you keep getting dealt hands hands, you look at them, you’re like, “This isn’t every good but I’m getting itchy I want to play.” You don’t play. You’ve just got to fold it. When you find that one, you have to go all in on it or you have to have enough conviction that you go in with a heavy bet.
So I think entrepreneurs who are starting at the starting lines and they’re looking forward trying to find the perfect thing, they won’t ever find it. That’s like waiting behind the poker table, watching different hands get dealt and trying to wait until the right time to start playing. You can’t find the right hand until you actually start playing. So you’ve got to get into the game and you’ve got to start doing things and just trust that with time and with variation of trying different things, you will find that thing what you have conviction on and when you find it, you bet big. That’s when you develop that T-shape philosophy and T-shape skillset.
When someone finds that and then really drills down on that one specific thing that it become a T. What’s their next move? Do they want to ideally get clients as they get more specific or do they need to wait until they become really, really good at that before they should go out to the market and start looking for people to do business with?
Well I think they’d already be doing business as a generalist. Like you don’t just find your T shape when you get your client. Often you’re getting clients and you’re getting clients in different areas. I remember when I started my consulting business, I had a rug shop. I had a plumber. I had a shop that sold vacuum cleaner replaceable bags. I had a ton of different stuff. I had an accounting firm, a law firm, a financial services firm. I was widespread. Electricians like locksmiths, all sorts of stuff.
That was me being a generalist and I learned a lot about a whole bunch of different things and at the same time I was educating myself. Then I found that where I was most interested and where I was getting the best results was professional services. So I liked working with people who were in like financial advisory or consulting or like wealth management or accounting, law because they had a real specialty and quite often their specialty was derived from a problem in the market. I could really connect those two things with my understanding and help them get more of that.
So when I started to notice that professional services inside my broad range of things was where I was interested and getting results, I was like, “Okay, well why don’t I just double down on that?” So I did. I double down on that and then I found that there was more strands within professional services. Inside that I found that there was accountants, lawyers, all these different things. Then there were also these consultants who that pretty much started their business solely to solve one problem that they saw in the market with a service.
One guy I had it was called effective governance and it was like heat sources. His company sources CEOs and board members for corporate companies. He used to work in a large firm. He saw a massive need in the market for that so he left it and provides this. He’s known as the go to person for that. So it was very specific. Then I evolved more to just focus on people like that. I gave them the term consultants. Then I stopped working with law firms and all these other people. I just worked with them. I got then more results and I really enjoyed that work more. I started making more money. I also got known as the person to help those sorts of people. So that was how something that looked like this kind of evolved into more of a T-shape over time.
That makes sense. You really can’t skip down to that very last part. It’d be like if you had started to try to teach consultants before you had ever done anything yourself. It just wouldn’t make any sense at all because you wouldn’t have had that breadth of experience. So it’s kind of a benefit.
It’s impossible. You can’t find your T until you are a generalist first. So that’s why the question like, should you be a generalist or should you be a specialist it’s not as easy as answering that question.
You should be both sometimes.
You should be a generalist first. It’s like the man who chases two rabbits, catches one so you should just chase one rabbit or you should chase two rabbits until you figure out what one you want then go for that one and let go of the other one. It’s like Michael Jordan chose his T to be basketball but I’m sure he tried different things before he thought basketball as it.
He actually quit basketball and went to baseball for a while.
Yeah. Then he didn’t do as well as that in that as he did at basketball, also he came back. It is important to try different things to know what you really want and quite often I see people who make up their mind about what their T-shape is before they try a variation. They end up leaving the thing which they got good out. So I’ve seen a lot of friends of my friends, people who are in like my social group back in New Zealand, I’ve seen a lot of them go out and become lawyers because they decided from a young age they wanted to be a lawyer. They went to law school. They did all of that then they became a lawyer and became T-shaped in law.
Then they didn’t like it and they quit to go and do something else. After that invested a lot of years into that. That showed me that they probably chose their T shape too early. They probably should have been a bit more general and kept but tried a lot of different things until they really had conviction that law was that thing. So I had to start a few different businesses. Like I started a job board website. I started an office lunch delivery business that taught me I never want to deal with food every again. I also started a property inspection software app for property management companies. That taught me that you have to be interested in the niche that you’re helping. Like I knew that I was solving a problem.
I liked building products but I wasn’t really fascinated with the property management industry and so I got bored of it. Then it really took me like three or four years to discover that the thing that I was truly passionate about was consulting. So I had to try that variation of things. I had to chase a few rabbits and to figure out the one I wanted and then go for that one. I think that’s the best way to evolve for everyone is to be comfortable being a generalist until you know what you want to be a specialist on and then go for it.
I think a lot of … there’s a lot of different sides to look at this thing because there are people who have been generalist for too long and still think they need to be generalist for longer. I mean if you’ve been a generalist for longer than like a year well then you need to decide because that one thing which you start going T shaped on, you might start going T-shaped on it and decide that you don’t want it and then you’ll figure out what you want to be T-shaped on. It’s like you’ve got to … the vehicle has got to be moving forward for like the steering system to work. If you’re dead still and you try and steer, the car doesn’t do anything. You got to be moving.
Do you often find that people not only do they decide too early or too late, do they decide for the wrong reasons like there’s external influences involved or someone just tells them there’s a lot of money to be had in this and then they go for that? Then they figure out that it’s not what they want to do and now they’re fully committed? Like maybe some of your lawyer friends who are in traditional jobs and then from there they really have to reevaluate exactly what do I want to do, do I even want to remain in the same generalist sphere?
You should not base your decisions on other people’s opinions ever. If there’s a lot of money in something at the time when you decide to get good at it, there’s probably a high chance that by the time you get good at it, there’s not going to be any money in it anymore. So quite often I found that pursuing the things where there isn’t money, by the time you get great at them, you can actually find a lot of money in them.
Because by the time people know that something is a great opportunity and then you decide to develop yourself and pursue the skillset to be great and take advantage of this opportunity, by the time you are great, the opportunity is gone. So it’s like people will wait like in the financial markets people say when the taxi driver is asking you about a stock, you should sell it. By the time the information is disseminated down through society to people who don’t know much about financial instruments, you probably don’t want to be holding that stock because it’s dispersed that far through society.
By the time like your career advisor school is telling you a career is good, it’s too late. So this is the problem with the traditional education system and the schooling system and just common advice. In order to take advantage of an opportunity, you need to get skilled and getting skilled takes time. Then by that time, the opportunity is gone. So it’s fascinating for me to watch. I could see this unfold for a while.
When I was at school everyone said you don’t want to do trades. My dad was a builder. He still is a builder and my mom was like, “You don’t want to be a builder. You want to work for a corporate. You want to have a suit and stuff because building is like lower class.” Then even at school they said that. They were like building that’s what like dumb people do. It sounds stupid but that’s what they say.
Yeah I know I hear it all the time.
So I observed everyone turn their nose up to the trades like plumbing, electrician, building and start doing things like law, medicine, accounting and stuff like this. What’s fascinating right now is that in the marketplace fresh out of college, a lawyer earns less than a builder. A plumber makes more than a lawyer. So what’s happened is because it was common sense to pursue being a lawyer or an accountant, there are now too many lawyers and accountants.
Because everyone ignored being a plumber and an electrician, now the world needs those. So it’s quite funny to watch people that spend 100, 200 grand on their education and think they’re very intelligent and think they’re more sophisticated and more intelligent than builders, the builders are kicking their ass right now. So it’s quite funny to watch. My dad says there’s like young builders making 120 grand a year and I still know friends who work at top law firms and got first class honors who make way less than that. That says everything to me.
Yeah it's funny people get so caught up and that’s generally what happens. Maybe there’s another shift in another 20 years where people figure that out and then there’s too many builders.
I’d say right now if you tried to really jump in on the building thing, you’d only catch about a year of it before the wave ends. So this is why you can’t listen to other people’s advice because most people just repeat what most other people say. By the time most people are aware of anything, it’s quite often too late. By the time any financial stock or instrument has made it to the news, it’s everyone’s information. You need to be able to spot things earlier on or you need to be able to see things which people can’t see. You need to see what something is going to be become not what something is right now. Because if something is experiencing its peak, then it’s bound to very soon see its downfall. If something is experiencing its downfall, it’s absolutely going to start coming up again. It's just the way markets evolve.
Over the course of history, time and time again things have just … it’s funny but people don’t catch the patterns.
People they don’t make much of an effort to learn a lot of things. They can’t see these things. They think what everyone is doing is what they should do. Then they wonder why they’re always getting things wrong.
Yeah. So going back and wrapping this up as far as the generalist and specialist goes, the answer is truly its much kind of a trick question. It’s one that …
Well there is an answer but if someone is looking for a black and white answer they’re not going to find one because it’s more complicated than that like life is. You can’t say the secret to life is to be a builder because they wouldn’t be what everyone was. You really need to try a variation of things. You shouldn’t be worried about what your first business idea is because it probably won’t work anyway.
By experiencing that business failure, you will find what you need to do. I used to be horrified of failure and having a business idea that failed but now looking back I’m so thankful for every failure because it taught me the biggest lessons I’ve ever learned. Like billionaires always say you learn nothing from your wins but you learn everything from your losses. That’s very true. I haven’t learned a whole bunch from my wins but those early failures they set the bedrock for all of my success moving forward because I learned the big mistakes to never make again. So those are the ones I always know about and I’m wary of.
So to answer the question like, “Should you be a specialist or a generalist?” It really depends on what you are now. If you are a specialist and you hate it, then you should probably try becoming a bit more of a generalist for a little bit to spot if there’s something else which you want to be a generalist in. If you’re a generalist and you’ve been a generalist for a while, you really need to pick something to be a specialist in. if you haven’t done anything at all, then you should become a generalist in a few things to figure out what that one thing is that you want to be a specialist in. Just always think about it like the simplest way to put it is T-shaped. You want to know a decent amount about a lot of things but be real intense and the best in the world at one thing.