Value of Specialists
Undeniably, being a specialist is advantageous.
For example, an engineer has a huge amount of expertise in a specific field, which is required to solve technical problems.
Specialists are the most valuable to clear bottlenecks, because “there is only one man who can do the job.”
Danger of Having Too Many Experts
But his competitive advantage can become his achilles heel.
“To a man with only a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
If he is not exposed to other disciplines (e.g. accounting, psychology), he is only trained to think in a narrow field. Having “engineering” as the only tool in his mental toolkit narrows his range of solutions. It’s like driving with blinkers—you are not aware of your blind spots.
In this respect, it pays to be a generalist rather than to be a specialist.
Whereas if a man has a wide range of skills across disciplines, he carries with him multiple tools at his disposal. Like a soldier fighting a war, he is armed with swords, guns, grenades, catapult, etc.
To effectively develop a solution, you have to build up a range of models in your mental toolkit.
This would limit the negative effects of a man-with-a-hammer tendency. You are not crippled by your lack of knowledge in other fields.
Finding the Balance: Generalist or Specialist?
The best people I’ve worked with are T-shaped:
1. They have a strong broad base of skills
2. In addition to this, they possess deep expertise in one area
In other words, they are an expert in one thing but are capable of many things.
Having cross-functional skill sets is important in adapting to this changing world.
The world does not operate in silos, especially when we live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, changing, ambiguous) world, “T-shaped” people tend to thrive.
This is why many of the Fortune 500 companies constantly rotate their highest potential employees across different functions. By pursuing tasks that are slightly beyond your skillsets, collaborating with people who are different than yourself, you are building a breadth of knowledge and skills.
How to Avoid Being The Man With A Hammer
What are some skills one should have to be “T-shaped” and avoid the “man-with-a-hammer” tendency?
As Charlie Munger referenced, build up your latticework of mental models.
For further reading, here is a helpful and comprehensive list of mental models: FS Mental Models.
In my next article, I will elaborate more about how to effectively use the mental models after learning them.
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