After a month that has seen several major UK retailers (Comet, Jessops, Blockbuster and HMV) slink off the high street and into administration, I’ve been mulling over some of the retail analyst commentary that accompanied these announcements. Several analysts were putting the demise of the stores down to a theory that consumers have outgrown generalist retailers in favor of specialist stores catering to specific, individual interests.
Once, being a generalist was seen as a plus: everything under one roof, something for everyone, infinite choice. It was also a prized quality in people; those with experience in a little bit of everything were seen as valuable, adaptable, able to transfer skills across categories and tasks – assets to any business.
But is the trend towards specialization impacting us as individuals as well as the stores we shop in? Countless career coaches and courses have been championing the idea that we need to specialize in specific industries, sub-sets of industries and niche areas of interest in order to stand out and get ahead. But is there a risk in specializing too much? Fast Company seems to think so, and if you look at the market, new startups who only do one thing, even if they do it extremely well, also seem to fizzle out after being superseded by those doing it even better.
So I’m thinking that there’s got to be something in between – a general specialist? Or perhaps a special generalist? Whatever the term may be, I believe there is a need for people in the world – on boards, on staff, and as free agents – to collect expertise(s) across many subjects and weave them together to create a personal offering that is so much stronger than simply a “specialism”.
I was inspired by a man I met in Ireland who spent years as a forestry manager, developing an encyclopedic knowledge of tree species, as well as a fascination with world history and a deep appreciation of literature. He combined those three subject areas into a career in preservation and is living out his passion by restoring a medieval castle. Spending time with him was like opening a window into the past, only to receive a nuanced understanding of the future.
I think in the past a man like him would have been called a Renaissance Man. There is a need for people like him in the world, though perhaps not with that backward-facing title. More importantly, there is a need for people to turn their penchant for customization inward on themselves and architect a future that isn’t polarized into either diving deep into one topic or skimming across the surface of many things.
The twenty-first century offers extreme opportunity for invention and innovation, and that applies to us as individuals even more so than the companies and brands we use. Old-fashioned binaries of “specialist” or “generalist” no longer adequately describe the multi-faceted talents we all develop and hone across new media platforms, creating self-styled roles no one could have ever dreamed of just ten years ago.
It’s time to consider ourselves on-going works-in-progress, and enjoy the journey of building up areas of ourselves as elements in an overall composition; only we know what the end result should be. Forget whether it’s specialized or general, and just go after the authentic.
Danielle Zezulinski is an account manager at Wolff Olins London.
Image via Banksy