It's fun to be a Generalist, you get to explore a variety of different topics and it often makes for good blogging. People don't really know what to expect when they see a new Read/Write Web item in their RSS Aggregator (although given my current experiment to try and blog a "short and pithy" post every day, odds are that reader expectations have fallen somewhat). And that uncertainty, that "what the heck is he on about this time?" response that I'm sure you all have of me - or perhaps it's "what the heck is he on?" - you have to admit, it makes for interesting browsing ...sometimes... when I'm not crapping on about XHTML validation or some such boring thing.
Anyway... see I've digressed already. That just proves the point I was going to make before I got distracted - that generalists have short attention spans. The other point I want to make is that you can't earn a decent living out of being a Generalist. And you never really 'fit in' anywhere. Let me elucidate...
In my day job I'm a 'Web Producer'. What does this entail? Mainly mind-numbingly boring website maintenance. Why is this? You're an intelligent, analytical, innovative writer (I hear you saying, leaping to my defence as the loyal readers I know you are). Author of the 'Synchonicity Meme' currently doing the rounds of the blogosphere. Inventer of the Microcontent Wiki. The visionary who thought up the Fractal Blogosphere. Why is this highly intelligent person stuck doing menial jobs like creating online ASP forms and converting Visio diagrams to PDF 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week? Ok I'm exaggerating. But it's still a good question: why aren't I satisfied in my career? And the sad answer is: because I'm a Generalist.
But lest this turn into a self-pitying post, I should advise that some aspects of my job are interesting. Like managing the creation of a new Intranet for a subsidiary company in Australia, developing web strategies for one of the biggest private companies in New Zealand, and experimenting with wikis. But the reality is, because I'm a jack of all trades Generalist, too much of my time gets taken up doing menial Web things for business people - just because I can.
There's a name for this in rugby (New Zealand's national sport). The Utility Back. This is a player who can cover a number of positions in the backline - usually fullback, winger, centre, second-five, even the premier position of first-five. Now the Utility Back often gets picked in All Black test squads, because of his versatility. He can cover a few positions, should one of the specialists get injured or loses form. And a Utility Back is a perfect man to take on tour, for the same reason. So being a Utility Back is good for your career, in the beginning that is. But the problem is, once your career as a Utility Back is established - it becomes very very difficult to nail down a specialist position in the backline. So the Utility Back invariably finishes their career sitting on the bench, frustrated at not getting any play as a first-team regular. That's precisely what's happening to my career. And I've got to change - I need to specialize so I can wear the famous black jersey with the silver fern (oh wait a minute, that's another dream).
Being a Generalist is obvious too in my place in the "blogosphere". I tackle a lot of subjects: web design, web development, knowledge management, strategy, music, social software...the list goes on. Most bloggers are sensible and stick to the 2-3 topics that are dear to their heart. Topics that, in the Web Tech neighbourhood of the blogosphere at least, match their real-world jobs. Designers always talk about Design. Social Software researchers talk about social software. Developers talk about hating Microsoft. This is all very sensible. Pick a subject and specialize in it.
And birds of a feather stick together. Designers groom each others nests (er, I mean websites), developers peck away at their keyboards, researchers fly south to their conferences. What do I do? I like to think I'm Jonathan Livingston Seagull, free to do my own thing, but maybe I'm just a lost sparrow looking for breadcrumbs.
Well I resolve to limit my weblog topics to these:
- Knowledge Management
- Website Management (Planning & Implementation)
- Information Architecture
- Multimedia (to keep things interesting)
That's about as narrow as I can make it. Significantly I'll try not to focus on the following things, even though they're interests of mine and I'm competent at all of them:
- Web Design
- Topic Mapping (although one could argue it's a part of info architecture)
It's hard for a Natural Born Generalist to ignore topics, but the reality of today's supply/demand world is that one must focus on a niche. My niche is going to be Writing, Analysis, Strategy, Knowledge Management (which I think covers all the topics above that I said I'm sticking with). Focus, dude.
Incidentally when I was 11/12 years old, I was a star left winger in my rugby team (Hutt Valley Marist). I scored the most amount of tries that year and was named Player of the Year. I kicked the goals too. I was skilful and fast. And I really enjoyed my rugby at that time in my life. I loved being the star winger. Yes yes, I know I was only 11 - leave me with my childhood dreams though :-)
To sum up: I hearby declare to you, don't let your children grow up to be Generalists. Save them before it's too late. Teach them the value of specializing in niches. And if you see me indulging in things that aren't in my list of niche topics, write a scathing comment on my weblog.