Do You Need to Specialize to Succeed?

freelance-specialistDo you have a freelancing specialty? Sure, you’re a writer, a graphic designer, a programmer, or you have another type of skill that lends itself to freelancing — but have you chosen a narrower specialty within your field?

Many freelancing gurus recommend that you carve out a specialized niche for yourself within your field. While this can be a valid business strategy, it may not be the right answer for everyone. But, can a freelancer survive without a specialty in today’s competitive market?

In order to answer this question we’ll take a realistic look at what it really means to be a specialist or a generalist. Some of what we uncover may surprise you.

A Mistaken Picture of Generalists and Specialists

Before we can really answer the question of whether you need a freelance specialty to survive, we need to explore what specialization and generalization really are.

When I think of a specialist, I tend to think of someone who is so focused on a particular topic that they nearly have blinders on to everything else that is happening in the freelance world. They may be efficient, but they are missing the big picture.

Likewise, when I think of a generalist I tend think of someone whose efforts are really scattered and possibly unfocused. They know a little bit about everything, but not much about anything.

Guess what, both stereotypes are wrong!

Let’s take a more realistic look at what it really means to be a specialist or a generalist.

The Reality About Specialization and Generalization

If the stereotypes about specialization and generalization are wrong, then they must be missing the mark somehow.

Here are some important points about specialization and generalization that are often overlooked:

  1. Specialization is a matter of degree — While some specializations have certifications and can be quantified, many others do not. Often, specialization becomes a function of experience, training, or both.
  2. It is possible to specialize in more than one thing — Some freelancers hesitate to specialize because they are afraid that they will be locked into working on a single type of project. However, many freelancing specialists have more than one specialty.
  3. There will always be those who know more (or less) than you about any given topic — Even among specialists there are differences. Some specialists will have more expertise in their specialty than others.
  4. Over time, the demand for any given specialty will change — If you do specialize, be prepared to change your specialty when the demand for it drops off. (Or, to ramp up if your area becomes “hot” again.)
  5. The decision to specialize in particular area is not permanent — One of the great benefits about freelancing is that it’s fluid. You can change your mind. This also pertains to whether you choose to specialize, or not.
  6. Regardless of whether you are a specialist or a generalist you still need to stay current — Choosing to be a generalist doesn’t mean that you can opt out of continuing education. Both specialists and generalists need to keep up with changing technology.
  7. The market is big enough to include both specialists and generalists — Some jobs will be perfect for specialists. Others will be a better fit for those with more general knowledge. Both jobs are out there.
  8. There is no “right” answer to the question of whether a freelancer should specialize — The choice to specialize is a highly personal one. Every freelancer will approach it differently and make the decision that is right for them.
  9. Most freelancers will wear both the generalist and specialist hats during their career — Most freelancers move back and forth between specializing and generalizing. A freelancer may start as a generalist, decide to specialize for a while, and then go back to being a generalist if the market demand changes.

Given these points, to some degree, there is less difference between a specialist and generalist than you might initially think.

Can a Freelancing Generalist Survive?

We’ve looked at this debate before, and weighed both sides from a more conventional outlook. While the information we presented earlier is still valid, it looks at being a specialist and generalist as two distinct things.

As we have just shown, for many freelancers, the difference between specialization and generalization is not always clear. Most of us will move between specialization and generalization throughout our freelancing career.

So, the answer to the question is “yes,” a freelancing generalist can survive. Not only that, most freelancing generalists will function as specialists at some point, and vice versa.

What Do You Think?

We’ve examined the question of whether freelancers should specialize to survive. We’ve also discovered that the line between specialization and generalization is more fluid than many suppose.

What about you?

Do you consider yourself to be a specialist or a generalist? How would you answer this question?

Leave your answer in the comments.

Image by Kapungo