Many people associate themselves with one of two skill groups: Specialist or Generalist. The first, fittingly, specializes in one particular skill or ability. They know their subject in depth and may insist on near perfection when engaged with their field. The generalist however tends to take in knowledge over a larger scope of ideas and while they may be better suited to the integration of those ideas, at times the depth of quality or knowledge may suffer compared to the specialist.
I’ve been involved in a number of discussions as to which of these is the ideal personality type, and while I am not sure that either is necessarily better than the other, I am convinced that for me the right answer is “both.”
The idea of the polymath or Renaissance Man (or Woman) refers to an individual who has a broad range of interests, abilities and knowledge and also has a deep understanding of them. It is an important distinction in my opinion, as depending on whom you speak with associating a person with the the title of either specialist or generalist carries with it its own negative connotations. In my opinion however, to aspire to know more than one particular field and to know them well is ideal. And I say “to aspire to” for a reason, as knowing everything about anything is impossible. But to have the energy and desire to constantly be hungry for more is not only good, but I think necessary to be successful in whatever you choose.
I can only use my own experience as an example. As Systems Administrator for Current360, I wear many hats. On a given day I might be plugging away at the command line on our web servers, maintaining our wireless network or diagnosing a printer or email issue. But I also lead our search engine optimization efforts, and help spearhead our blog team. So how are these things related? They are certainly technology oriented, but they may not appear to be the most integrated concepts. But they are.
In order to be good at something and not simply adequate, I believe that wearing many hats (and wearing them well) is necessary. For example: Good SEO results are directly related to the quality of the front end of a website as well as the back end. If things aren’t forwarded correctly and your server isn’t set up correctly, your site won’t rank as well. Those blog posts? Those are pages on your website with (I hope) interesting information that informs guests to your site and hopefully brings them back. If your information is interesting, someone may search for it. Thus your efforts are rewarded with good search returns. Need to make a change to a web page? You are going to need to know some HTML.
But it doesn’t stop there. Those are the nuts and bolts. Your skills can broaden even further. What makes a good design? What makes people want to visit your site from a visual perspective? What makes it fun and interesting and engaging? These are things beyond the scope of pure technology. They are aesthetic skills developed from observation, and study. And they are concepts that reach beyond text and code but to interactive marketing and advertising.
The point? Know it all. I have yet to find a situation where a thirst for more knowledge in any given field is a bad thing. The more we know, the more we can help our clients. And the more we know about those subjects, the better able we are to help them meet their vision.
Why not also learn carpentry, or study astronomy? Paint or invent. The skills you learn may not obviously contribute to your work at hand, but you may be able to solve a problem or create an opportunity that you otherwise may not have had. Attempting to know more about the world around us can lead us to be better informed artisans.