Generalist V Specialist: Is it harder to be a sprinter or a decathlete?
Financial Advice & Strategic Issues

Generalist V Specialist: Is it harder to be a sprinter or a decathlete?

September 7, 2020

by Tony Vidler  CFP logo   CLU logo  ChFC logo

Generalist or specialist?  This is an ongoing dilemma for many financial advisers and there is a widely held belief that becoming the specialist is harder to do.


But is it really?


Let’s look outside the world of professional services and into the highly competitive, no-room-for-mistakes, world of the Olympic athlete and consider what goes into being a specialist or a generalist.


A world class sprinter “does an hour of training a  day but for a decathlete it’s three or four hours” according to Daley Thompson, the former British decathlete and two time Olympic gold medallist in the event. I am not sure if one hour for a world class sprinter is totally accurate today or not, but it was probably true some years ago, and certainly Thompson believed that to be the case when he made the statement in 2012.


Todays decathletes and heptathletes train twice a day, for about 3 hours a time, and do it 6 days a week.  That is a heck of a lot of work going into being world class at 7 or 10 disciplines.  It is a heck of a lot less work going into being world class in a single discipline.


In a service business we sometimes have no choice in reality – some businesses HAVE to be generalists.  If you live in a rural area for instance and are working with an incredibly diverse clientele with a wide variety of issues, then it is incredibly difficult to specialise profitably.  Being a generalist is usually the only model that makes sense if you are going to have a profitable business which provides value to the local market in those circumstances.  To be blunt; it is hard to be a specialist if the local population is only 1,000 people.  But if you are a great generalist then pretty much everyone eventually comes to you.


If however you are not faced with such limitations narrowing your business model choices, then there is little doubt that being a specialist is actually easier.  It is not necessarily easier to become a specialist – it is just easier when you get there.  If you are the go-to adviser for a particular need in a city with a population of 3,000,000 then specialisation is usually a commercially viable option.  The people with the need come looking for you.


Achieving excellence in any single discipline is tough.  Achieving excellence in multiple disciplines is beyond many, and requires a level of focus, commitment and energy which is tough to maintain over a long period of time.


So there is the choice for modern practitioners who are pursuing excellence:

1.  work hard and long to become an excellent specialist, whereupon you get to work hard to maintain your excellence.

2.  work long and hard to become an excellent generalist, whereupon you get to work both long and hard to stay there.


So which is best?


Well I suspect it comes down to where you want to live, and the type of life you want to have, together with how you are wired.  If living in a country town and dealing with a wide variety of people and issues is more fun, then go do that. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ll be able to do it simply by being a specialist as it simply may not be possible to earn a living.  If being known as THE expert is your thing then country living with a GP practice probably won’t work for you.


Either pathway can deliver fantastic career satisfaction and a good living.  But understand what it is you truly value and where you get your professional kicks when deciding upon the specialist or generalist option, because those are the things that matter most in guiding your choice.

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