Be T-shaped: don’t be a specialist or a generalist

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When we talk about focused people we often think of specialists. People that concentrate primarily on a particular subject or activity and do that incredibly well. They are quite different from generalists that are competent in several different fields or activities. To survive in the future labour market you need to be T-shaped.

I believe that to survive in the future labour market you need to combine your specialist focus with being a generalist. You need to be T-shaped and have deep knowledge and skills in a particular area, along with the desire and ability to make connections across disciplines. Let me explain.

Specialist or generalist?

Edward is a specialist. He is a computer programmer and likes to code in Java, something he has been doing now for many years. He never has any trouble finding a new job and they always pay him well. Sometimes he is bothered by the fact that he always does the same thing day in day out. At times he feels a bit like a ‘one trick pony’. But then he realizes that the very reason they ask him to do that particular job is because he is a specialist and he is the best.

John is a generalist. He works as an operations manager in a small company and does: marketing, sales, procurement and resource management. He does his job well but sometimes he feels like a bit of an amateur when he is talking to a dedicated marketeer or an experienced procurement specialist. His boss proudly calls him a ‘jack of all trades’. But John realizes that he is also ‘master of none’.

In the near future there will no longer be jobs for life, but we will be talking about employability for life. Employability means that you have the skills and abilities that allow you to be employed.

Learn how to learn

Knowledge is power in today’s world and having a good understanding of a wider selection of topics is an advantage. The world is becoming increasingly interconnected, with different people working together and solving complex issues. In the future of work, the most important skill is to be able to learn how to learn. The skills you need to be successful are constantly changing and the amount of knowledge that is available keeps growing. The best employees always know how to adapt and find the information they need.

So what is this T-shaped superhuman they keep talking about? Why is it called T-shaped? Well, the ‘leg’ of the T represents the depth. Meaning a specific skill set or an expertise. You can have one or more legs of a T. The ‘bar’ of the T represents the breadth. Things like: the ability to adapt and learn to do other work, the emotional quotient, how well you work with people and empathy.

T-shaped Edward

What does this mean for someone like Edward? The ‘one trick pony’? I would advise him to maintain his focus as a computer programmer but to also broaden his horizon at the same time. He could learn more about: other programming languages, (software) architecture and programming methodologies. When he learns to manage projects he can talk to other specialists in different departments of the company. Learning more about their work. He could even try to become a trainer and share his expert knowledge with others. In the end he will probably have more fun doing his job and he will have a stronger position in the – current and future – labour market.

T-shaped John

And for someone like John? The ‘jack of al trades, master of none’? He should keep doing what he does best: his generalist work. But besides that he could also dive into a more specialized part of his job. To train his focus. For example, he can start following courses in procurement or marketing and obtain a certificate, degree or diploma. He will probably love becoming a specialist in a particular subject and being able to spar with other ‘subject specialists’. Besides that, he too will have a much stronger position in the labour market.

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