Can you be both a generalist and a specialist as a creator?

Personal Development The Future Belongs to Creators
In this Article

When starting out as a creator, you’ll likely find yourself in a jack of all trades position, working every part of the job to get your career off the ground.

Unless you have a lot of extra funds at your disposal to outsource the work you don’t want to do, in order to succeed, you have to learn how to do everything. This brings up an important question..

As a creator, is it better to be a generalist or a specialist?

Is it more beneficial to you and your career to do everything well or to become an expert at one thing?

To niche down or to not niche down is a common creator conundrum. Let’s take a closer look at the values inherent in both generalist and specialist roles and how creators might learn to balance both.

Be a V-shaped person

Figuring out whether to niche down or not is a tricky choice for a creator.

A mentality to help you if you’re struggling with this is to think of yourself as a V-shaped person. This refers to someone who picks a specific skill to focus on but builds on it by learning other skills to support the main one. In this scenario, the tip of the “V” is the skill you focus on, and the wider part of the “V” is the extra skills feeding into your specialization.

This way of framing your skills permits you to explore other interests, but with structure and thoughtful parameters that help service your main interest.

Doing it all: being a jack of all trades

Creators don’t often have teams around them in the beginning, which is why they have to learn to do everything themselves. They create the content, edit it, promote it, post it, and plan future content. It all lands on the creator.

If you’re a digital creator, this means you have to be able to handle a camera, edit videos, and manage social media among a million other things.

As it is, creators are practically forced into a jack of all trades position when they start. It’s completely normal. In fact, it’s probably beneficial in the end, because once you get to the point of picking a specialty you’ll know all the ins and outs of your business.

Starting as a generalist and getting a feel for every part of your industry will make you that much better of a creator when you do have a team around you because you’ve had the time to sharpen your taste and finesse your style.

Niching down: when it’s necessary

The secret to niching down is figuring out the right timing. You don’t want to niche down too early or you won’t have accumulated enough of an audience, but you don’t want to wait too long and miss out on leveraging a specialty that could have taken you to the next level.

Picking a niche or a focus is a scary thing for creators as many fear losing the audience they gained along the journey of building their brand. That fear is not unwarranted, but by picking the niche you’re most passionate about will naturally interest the most loyal fans who stick around. It's a win-win all around.

While timing is key, the truth is that niching down is usually a necessary move for creators to find success.

There will come a time when you’ve adequately learned all the skills you need to run your business. You’ll recognize that the time you’re spending on some tasks could be better spent on others. Whether the tasks that require more of your time are building your network out or strategizing future plans, outsourcing what you don’t have time to do anymore is an important step in building your business, your audience, and narrowing your focus.

Why communication is the skill of all skills

As a creator, your most important skill will be communication. Regardless of what kind of creator you are, whether you’re a painter, a writer, a photographer, or a YouTuber, you have to communicate what your work is all about. You might need to express that on camera or on paper, but either way, you need to communicate and express your thoughts to people. Investing in improving that skill will always be worthwhile.

This is another example of how the jack of all trades mentality can be beneficial. If you spent your first few years as a creator doing everything yourself, you had to figure out how to communicate yourself to other people. Whether that was you editing your videos or your social media posts, you had to figure out how to finetune your understanding of how you present yourself to others and explain your work.

Be an expert and a generalist

To be an expert is to be someone who repeats. They do something, again and again, getting better and better and learning more and more each time. One might say that being a creator is to be someone who does one thing at a time–they get good at each thing individually and then move on to learn another. A generalist and an expert all in one.

As it is, the more skilled you get at something, the less mental space it takes up to do it. As creators, freeing that mental space up is an important way to make room for learning new things and improving on others.

Making space by outsourcing a task you’ve already learned through and through is another way to think about being intentional with your time. Sometimes our energy is better devoted to something else, and recognizing that takes its own kind of practice and skill.

If, say, you decide to outsource your editing after years of doing it yourself, that would mean you’re freeing up a significant amount of your time that you can now put into something else. This allows you to put more of yourself into other parts of your business, to go deeper in the areas you want to explore more, to level up quicker, and to build on your accumulated skills.

The new creator economy

The new creator economy is very much informed by people embracing a more generalist mindset, as opposed to a specialist one. Of course, many of these generalists will eventually niche down and pick a specialty, but their career is based on their generalist knowledge.

This also highlights the value in not being hyper-focused on one interest all the time, and rather leaving room to explore and learn as passions arise. It brings to mind the way we’ve all learned to ask children what they’re going to be when they grow up as if they can only be one kind of person with one particular skill.

American society has traditionally pushed the notion that to be successful you need to pick something and stick with it. The current creator economy seems to challenge that, balancing it out more, and giving much more room and appreciation to the people who want to learn how to do everything.

This brings us back to the concept of the V-shaped person–someone who has a focus but doesn’t let that focus entirely limit their interests or what they spend their time learning. Rather, the focus shapes the outline of those interests, acting as guiding lines.

Strike the balance

Well-roundedness, while encouraged in the early years of schooling where we all learn the same amounts of math, literature, science, and history, is not so much encouraged in the latter years. It’s much harder for adults to find opportunities to continuously learn and broaden their skillset.

At the end of the day, there are benefits and drawbacks to being a generalist and a specialist. As a generalist, you have a better perspective when it comes to the big picture, but you miss out on the specific knowledge that would allow you to have a deeper understanding of a certain skill. As a specialist, you might have a narrower overall perspective, but you have the unique ability to understand one thing well. The value in both generalist and specialist means you should try to strive for some kind of balance, but the scale of that balance is up to you.

As Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

We all have passions and interests that manifest at different stages throughout our lives. Leaning into those passions and remembering to honor ourselves by seeking out learning is the best way we can get to know ourselves over time. Finding success as creators and satisfaction as humans means staying attuned to how we can both build on our skills and follow our passions.

Remember, you contain multitudes.

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