Paul Jarvis

Specifician to a generalist?

It’s overwhelming, right?

There’s so much to learn about freelancing or making products and so many varied skill-sets required to do either (or both, in my case).

It’s hard to know where to start sometimes. Especially when you look at the folks who’ve been doing it for a while and they all have around 38 different skills they use regularly and deftly. Jerks.

I got an email the other day from someone asking me if being a “Jack of all trades”, generalist freelancer was on purpose (since I do everything from design to programming to marketing to audio/video production, etc). They wondered if they should try to learn all those skills or just focus 100% on their craft.

It’s a good question.

Should you focus on just one skill and master it 100% inside and out? And then, just outsource the other pieces you need, as you need them? Or should you become a generalist with all the skills required?

While I don’t have the answer, here’s my thought process on the subject: do both, but in a specific order.

Start with a single specific skill, and add complementary skills as your understanding of your audience and their needs increases.

I started as a programmer, then added design many years after that. Then over a decade later I added things like writing, marketing (and whatever it is I do on the interwebs now) to my pocket.

If I had to map out moving from a specifician (yes, I just made that word up) to a generalist, it’d be:

  1. Start with a single and specific skill. For the purpose of this example, let’s say web design.
  2. Hone in on how that skill applies to and helps a specific audience solve a specific problem. I.e. that audience values the skill enough to gladly pay for it.
  3. Add new skills, one at a time, that directly help that same audience with that same problem. Since this example is using web design as a skill, additional skills that could help an audience that needs websites might be SEO, content marketing, programming, funnels, course development and so on.
  4. Now that your varied skills are potentially better able to solve more of the problem for your audience, test those skills with your own products or with a small sample of your existing clients (refining them through experiments).
  5. Increase your value to your audience by offering those skills to them, now that  they’ve been learned and tested.
  6. Optional bonus: split focus between doing 1–on–1 work for your audience and doing 1–to–many work on your own products, using your new varied skill-set.

However, being a generalist only makes sense when the set of skills you’ve got work together in some way to help solve a problem for your audience (whether it’s to sell client service work or products).

Your varied skills shouldn’t just be a hodgepodge of non-connecting things you can do. To be useful, you need to string them together.

You can easily see if a skill fits by mapping out the problems your audience has that one of your skills helps solve. What’s missing from what you know that’d help with the same problem? What do you have to source or refer to another expert?

The more complementary skills you add, the easier it is to be more valuable to your audience (see: you can charge them a lot more).

If you think about it, that’s often how creativity and art works as well. They’re a mashup of two areas of practice that are used to make something new. Picasso blended western with african art. Early web designers smushed together print layout with technical screen limitations. Content marketers mashup words and psychology. The blending is where the fun bits of thinking come into play.

You can also note that you don’t have to be incredible or have decades of focused study in your auxiliary skills to use them. Know enough about them to make them useful. That’s what good generalists do, they learn the parts of a skill-set they need and don’t worry about the rest.

Even if I’m wrong and it’s better to be a specifician forever, I can tell you one thing for sure: never, ever, ever stop learning.

Never believe that you’ve learned enough about your craft or about life itself. Anytime you scratch the surface of anything, more layers (that you probably didn’t even know existed) are always just below the surface.

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