Startups often require the founders to wear many hats.
When they first get started, there’s only a few, if not only a single, employee doing all the work. They must be able to wear many hats. They need to have the ability to validate their product/ service by gathering feedback from customers. They need to have an understanding of basic accounting and financial management. They also need to be competent at sales, marketing, copywriting, stakeholder management, branding and storytelling. This is on top of whatever technical skills they need to deliver the product or service their business is based upon.
It requires an open mind to learning all these different skills, as well as a strong sense of curiosity and commitment.
The case for being a generalist is strong here. Although we’re not all going to start our own company and be required to wear all these different hats, I still believe there’s value in learning a wide variety of skills and competencies.
The logic behind going for breadth instead of depth is this; if you put yourself in an environment that forces you to level up in various areas, these new learnings will be transferrable to future roles.
It is an insurance policy against uncertainty.
Of course, I believe there’s value in depth. We need specialists in our society. If I went to the hospital, I’d want to know that the surgeon about to perform surgery is an expert in their given profession. I’d want to be safe in the knowledge that they have studied this very specific area in their field and know everything there is to know about it.
Further, you might get to a point in your career where becoming a specialist is the wise move. Maybe you’ve found something that you’re deeply passionate about. Maybe an opportunity has presented itself which will require you to go down the rabbit hole and become the expert.
There are other advantages to becoming a specialist as well. There’s a level of personal satisfaction that comes with being an expert in your field. Additionally, you would learn valuable (softer) skills such as focus, deep work and research. These should not be discounted.
However, what happens when suddenly this specialisation becomes redundant (for whatever reason; AI, automation, outsourcing, economic or health crises, etc.)? All of a sudden, you’re without a job. There will be specialisations that are always in demand, yet as society evolves, job’s will evolve as well. We need transferrable skills. And I would argue that you wouldn’t have the breadth of transferrable skills that a generalist would have.
The generalist, the startup founder who had to learn every aspect of how to run a business, has skills and knowledge that she can take and apply to many other professions.
When uncertainty or misfortune strikes (which it inevitably will), the generalist is prepared.
Wearing a few different hats not only fosters the curiosity to keep learning. It also enables us to thrive when things don’t go our way. It builds resilience to adversity and enables us to continue adding value.
What say you? Are you a generalist or a specialist?