There are perks to being a generalist but it’s the specialists that rise faster and command more money
What’s your favorite restaurant? I bet none of you will name a buffet. Even pre-COVID, buffets were known for having a little bit of everything but loved by nobody.
Yet many pursue the buffet strategy in careers: jack of all trades, master of none.
Allure of the buffet
I started my career in the buffet line. One of the advertised perks of consulting is you get a taste of everything! Who doesn’t want endless variety? Same with rotational programs. It’s music to the ears of commitment-phobes everywhere.
The truth is a bit more nuanced. You do get variety, but there are some catches:
- Is your exposure an accurate view of what it’s really like?
- Can you handle the paradox of choice?
In consulting, I struggled with both. The cases varied widely from pure theory to boots on the ground implementation, but mostly I learned more about being a consultant than how to operate in the client’s shoes.
The 30-thousand-foot view of a dizzying array of choices made the future foggier, not clearer. But the experience did give me three gifts:
- Conviction that I wanted to be action-oriented instead of an armchair strategist
- Grueling boot camp that turned me from clueless to competent
- Most importantly, opened many more doors
Your real job
The buffet is an effective way to (re)start your career when you’re new and unsure where to go. You get to sample a spectrum of options and explore a large surface area, but your real job is to learn valuable skills and ultimately go deep.
Even partners at consulting firms don’t consult on all matters. They develop expertise in a few sectors, and nurture specific relationships that help them sell lucrative cases. The only true generalists are the fresh recruits just starting out.
Generalists are also found at early-stage companies where the most important thing is to roll up your sleeves. But as the company scales, generalists that do not have clear strengths are passed on for growth opportunities.
Promotions are based on strengths, preferably superpowers, not lack of weaknesses.
Deep vs. unique specialization
Returning to the opening question, your favorite restaurant probably falls into one of two groups:
- Known for a specific cuisine (French) or feature (convenient) aka deep specialization
- Known for a blend of cuisines or features aka unique specialization
They stand out by being better, or being different — not doing everything like a buffet.
For a long time, I thought going from generalist to specialist in a career meant committing to deep specialization, like getting a PhD. What a paralyzing thought if you change your mind often!
Thankfully, unique specialization is an alternative path where you craft a blend of skills. It still requires you to make some choices which can feel limiting, but here’s the inconvenient truth: not making a choice is the most dangerous thing of all.
As a generalist, you swim among an endless supply of fresh-faced recruits. You’re a commodity. As you start defining yourself, however, you get closer to a market of one. The more specific and focused your outcome, the less competition you face.
A global talent pool means that the bar for “better” will only keep rising. Finding your signature blend of skills is like designing an elevator that helps you rise faster.
Find your signature blend
Some guiding questions:
- What are you naturally drawn to?
- What’s hard and boring for others, but relatively easy and fun for you?
- What skills are in short supply and likely to persist?
- What could you practice everyday that will transform your life in a year?
- What is rarely found with your existing combination of skills?
None of these answers emerge overnight. They usually come from years of taking small steps and trying different things. Sometimes your experiments will backfire, but the key is to keep going.
It’s a winding journey, not a straight shot destination. I grapple with it everyday.
This approach is surprisingly essential in roles like product management. Given the sheer number of things to cover, the default reaction is to do as many things well as possible. But this often leads to mediocre results and career burnout. You stretch yourself too thin, and lose sight of your natural strengths.
The broader a role, the deeper you should carve.
Nurture your spikes, and find opportunities that value those spikes. Neutralize weaknesses if they are fatal, but know that most weaknesses are not fatal, and too much time is wasted trying to get good at things that don’t compel you.
Scott Adams: ability to draw × decade of corporate experience × sense of humor × witty storytelling = Dilbert creator, bestselling author
Jack Butcher: decade of design agency experience × taste × ability to simplify × internet-savvy distribution = iconic creator of Visualize Value
Shreyas Doshi: deep PM experience × ability to synthesize × unflinching honesty × decade of sharing on Twitter = beacon for product leadership
Monica Lent: decades of coding experience × SEO expertise × marketing-savvy × transparent writing = inspirational entrepreneur
There are unlimited ways to define yourself. Here’s how I bootstrapped my PM journey.
Grow your pricing power
Buffets have notoriously limited pricing power. Contrast this with Michelin star restaurants that have incredible pricing power.
They start by inspiring a passionate following who are willing to pay a lot for the experience. Then herd mentality kicks in.
Herd mentality is the single biggest force that drives up the valuation of companies and individuals. When you have multiple eager bidders (whether it’s investors for your company, or employers who want your service), the price you command skyrockets.
To get there, you need to be a unique offering for a specific group.
A PM with X years of experience is a dime a dozen. A PM that spikes on problem solving is good, combined with data analysis is great, topped with a strong grasp of the competitive landscape is exceptional. (That’s probably why I appealed to Instagram).
Granted, you may not want to take the highest offer. Big numbers come with big expectations, and there are always strings attached. But cultivating more quality options over time puts you in the driver’s seat.
While exploring the buffet is fun, using it to design your own signature blend of flavors is far more rewarding.
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