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Should You Be a Generalist or a Specialist in the Creative Industry?

The creative industry is extremely versatile today, since it can cover any forms of entertainment, media, art, architecture, software — the list keeps on going. With such an expanded industry one may ponder where they belong in the creative industry. Should you learn a multitude of skills or focus on that one skill you have fallen in love with? What are the benefits or drawbacks? Is it better to be a generalist or specialist in the creative industry in 2020?


Jack of all trades, Generalist

Generalists tend to be better problem solvers than specialists. They appreciate diversity, they are in the know about the wide world and they understand how things interact with one another. Generalists can define problems and propose solutions. There is so much complex information out there that is also rapidly evolving. We need people with broad mindsets, the generalists, to make sense of it all. They are better at understanding the bigger picture. 

Generalists are great team leaders. They are able to understand the processes, struggles and triumphs other creative people experience. Generalists have more sympathy for others and they love to solve or at least give advice on how to solve problems. This is why generalists are excellent to lead projects for example as a producer or director. 

In the eyes of a startup, a generalist might bring more value than a specialist. They are there to sharpen the problems a startup is trying to solve, but also be able to provide solutions for them with their wide knowledge in different creative skills. Founders of a startup also tend to be generalists, because they can interact more efficiently, realize the potential markets and have a better understanding of the world in general. Just look what Elon Musk has been able to achieve in the past 10 years.  

However, the abundance of online tutorials and workshops doesn’t make a person a veteran when learning a new skill (see Dunning-Kruger Effect). Like any subject in school, if you don’t apply that knowledge you learned onto anything, you will eventually forget all of it. Generalists can often overlook this fact. They also might have to turn down or outsource specialized work when running a business, further increasing costs and potential losses.

One-trick pony, Specialist

When something needs to be done and have it done well, you call the expert, the specialist. Striving to be the very best substantially raises your chances of landing that dream job of yours. And at the same time, you will most likely get paid pretty well to use that magnificent skill of yours. This is especially true for larger companies who already have people creating ideas and defining problems. Specialists execute solutions with tremendous skill.

A specialist is the person who needs little to none to be trained as an employee. They are given tasks that they love to do and their plan is to execute them. Specialists generally don’t have to spend hours in meetings where spreadsheets are laid out and discussed. When the life of a specialist is working smoothly, it is a wonderful position to be in. 

Specialists can also have a far better career online or as self-employed. It is relatively easy to attract an online following or customers once you start to display those magnificent skills and works of yours out there. Joining communities further advance your online presence, further improving your chances of also getting job offers from companies.

The unfortunate downside occurs when you get fired or laid off. You start searching for jobs requiring your special skill, but you can’t seem to find any. What do you do? If you aren’t able to find any preferred job listings or if you can’t even make a fruitful career as an individual online or as self-employed, things can get pretty tough. It may also be far-fetched, but I must also mention the rapid evolution of AI eventually hitting the employment scene hard in the creative industry in the next 10 years.

Clear verdict? Any alternatives?

When writing this blog, I did start to think whether the question “Generalist OR Specialist in the creative industry?” is the right form of the question. Creativity in itself can be applied to all kinds of activities, some of which are suited better to generalists, some specialists. This proposed question assumes that creativity is an identifiable quality, which it is not by all means. 

When applying for a specific creative job, without a doubt the chances of you getting hired rise significantly when you have excellent knowledge and skill in one or two areas. Your years of experience and high quality work make the value of a generalist look trivial. 

But I believe this is not enough.

I cannot stress enough the benefits of understanding creative problems as a generalist outside of your field. These general skills will support your specialist skills all the time, no matter where you work. This in return helps you position your specialism in a way that it is useful and desirable for others.

To visually demonstrate this, I’ve made a modified “T-shaped Creativity” chart, a concept created by David Armano, of my own specialism and general skills.

T-shaped Creativity by David Armano Modified

Revisit those skills you’ve tackled previously and don’t be afraid to jump into new territory regularly. You as a person, will benefit the most out of this. You will start to think more critically and outside of the box. Once you’ve broadened your way of thinking, acceptance and communication you will be more valuable than any pure specialist in the world. 

That’s the kind of creative I’d love to hire.


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