Generalist versus Specialist

There’s an old saying about Generalist, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” I’ve heard that used to disparage artist who like to train in a variety of styles (including non-Asian martial arts) to increase the breadth and depth of their knowledge. Specialist feel one must stick to a topic and excel at it. “It takes a lifetime to understand one kata.”

A Generalist has lots of skills but doesn’t put the time in to become great at one thing. No matter the situation, they can come up with something. However, they are not as proficient as an expert specialist and will be outmatched. Specialist is great at one thing but sacrifices flexibility to adapt to new input. Admittedly, you can pick a specialty that encompasses say 80% of the known cases. However, it’s not all the possible cases.

Kempo Karate is a generalist art. The Kempo artist feel comfortable in most situations – stand up, ground fighting, multiple assailants, versus weapons or in grappling. Yet it is not great at all of them. They apply principles of motion and reaction to each situation. They don’t make a technique fit the circumstances, they allow the circumstances to guide the technique. That’s a subtle difference.

Tae Kwon Do (TKD) artists (as an example) are great at kicking so they pull all situations into a kicking format. Likewise, Brazilian Jujutsu (as another example) excels at ground fighting so they pull all situations to the mat. They each figure that they can keep the combat game either at kicking range (for TKD) or bring it to the ground (for BJJ). By being specialist, they can usually solve their confrontation by doing just that. TKD artists finish the job with kicks and punches. Jujutsu artists bring the fight to the ground and finish it there.

These two examples are great strategies. Use what you do well to your greatest advantage.

Martial arts have a different spin on this concept. The artists often train for a lifetime, decades of devoted practice and experience. This transforms the Generalist and Specialist. A Generalist with lots of experience becomes “master of all.” Likewise, a Specialist with lots of experience becomes a “master of all” by virtue of shoehorning all into their specialty. The net result is the same destination – the perfect warrior.

Which is better? That’s for the student to decide. I enjoy flexibility and generalist training so I’m comfortable in most situations. However, for work I prefer Specialist and Teamwork. Each person in the team excels at one job so the team excels at the whole process. The take-away analysis is each situation or task is different, therefore the tactics and strategies you use depend on what it is.

Like a battle, you pick the strategy that works best for the field. Which do you think is better and why?