To specialize or not to specialize (To marry or not to marry)


Let´s say that you are on your late 20s, early 30s, you had a rewarding professional career without breaking your back but you were never really passionate about it. You look back and you realize that you were successful working in several different areas but you are not really an specialist in any of those areas. Now you are half way through a part-time MBA, and you could use it to specialize in one area or maybe start doing something that you are passionate about.

The problem is that you don´t know what you are really passionate about since you like (not love) many different fields. It´s like knowing that you have to marry ONE girl (the market rewards specialization), but you like ALL of them without really loving any of them.

Any advice?


asked Dec 4 '09 at 03:12
A. Garcia
1,601 points
  • Thank you everybody for your comments. They are really helpful. – A. Garcia 14 years ago

7 Answers


For whatever it's worth, one question I often ask passionate people is how would you help someone else find their passion. I've received two responses from the two people I've asked:

1) Get out and do different things. Get out of your comfort zone and try new stuff. Hang out with different people. Live life differently until you find something that ignites your fire.

2) Pay attention to the way you speak. There is a time when someone talks where you can hear the enthusiasm in their voice and hear the passion. When do you talk like this? Possibly ask close friends and see if they know.

answered Dec 4 '09 at 07:04
460 points
  • I totally agree, especially on the second point! – Olivier Lalonde 14 years ago


I sometimes have the same problem. Several people have advised me to just pick and engage. It doesn't have to be forever. The engagement itself may bring new passion as you start to really solve some problems and meet others, or it may show you that you don't really care as much as you thought, and you can pick something else. However, never picking makes it more likely you will never engage with anything.

answered Dec 4 '09 at 04:06
303 points
  • Agreed. Delaying a choice is really choosing "nothing". It sounds obvious, but the consequence is that choosing nothing is the worst choice, so you defraud yourself in the worst way by not deciding and you also waste time. – Gabriel Magana 14 years ago


I disagree with your assumptions about what "specialist" means. I agree that specialization is generally more valuable and something you should be thinking about. Here's a to-the-point article about that.

But knowing "enough to be dangerous" about many things, plus getting some business knowledge at school -- that puts you in a (relatively) rare position of having a broad, considered, informed outlook. Isn't that being a specialist, just at wide-ranging things instead of one thing?

"Knowing everything about PHP" is one way to be a specialist, but "Knowledge of 10 languages so I can pick the right one for a job" is also a specialty, for example.

It's not the word "specialist" that's important right? It's that you have a rare, useful ability, because those two things are valuable.

So I agree you need to decide "who am I," specifically "How do I (relatively) uniquely fit into this world?" and "In what ways am I more qualified than 99.9% of anyone else?"

answered Dec 6 '09 at 06:56
16,231 points


Specialization is always more financially lucrative, but carries greater risk because the specialization may not be needed/valued in the future. I think specialization is the best strategy for a small startup/individual as long as you are able to continue to grow to keep your offerings/skills relevant.

For example, imagine a mechanic that specializes in Jaguars. In the 1980s, he was in high demand and got paid more than a generalist mechanic because Jaguars were finicky and their owners wanted an expert to work on them. Today, there's less call for a specialty Jaguar mechanic because after Ford acquired Jaguar, they replaced many of the unique components with more reliable off-the-shelf components. That same mechanic can not charge as much today as he used to because his expertise is not as valuable.

I started my business as a specialist in a particular technology when those skills were in high demand. Ten years later, there is less demand for those skills, so my business has had to expand in to new areas where there is more demand. This has worked pretty well for me - if I had started a general software development company 10 years ago, I don't think I would have made it.

answered Dec 4 '09 at 05:51
Michael Trafton
3,141 points


I have the same question as James Black: why specialize? Sounds like you're a born generalist and there is nothing wrong with that.

Like you, I have a wide range of interests and specifically pursued a generalist career including in my choice of B-school (a general management school). Over the years, I've found that while it can initially be more lucrative to be a specialist, what's actually in short supply are good generalists to tie things together, particularly in smaller companies and startups where one must wear many hats.

By being a general manager, I've been able to get a broad range of experience in almost all the major functional areas including marketing, sales, engineering, manufacturing, finance, and HR both U.S. and international. (The only area I missed is IT.) The career ascent may take longer because there will be more lateral moves. Also, you do need to have the ability to dig down deep enough in all of the specialties as needed to appreciate what the specialists do and integrate them into an effective team. (And along the way, I even found that I had a particular aptitude for marketing.)

If a general management career is of interest, a great way to step into it is via product management (marketing side) or project management (engineering or operations side) depending on your background. Personally, I think product management is one of the greatest training grounds for future CEOs because it's by nature a "fill in the gaps" position between marketing, sales, product development, and manufacturing with a good dose of customer mixed in.

Best of luck on your decision.

answered Dec 4 '09 at 10:00
696 points


What are you passionate about?

For example, I am passionate about building and design. Not just software or electronics, but even the idea of building various play buildings for my children. Or, teaching them the joy of building a catapult. :)

If you are passionate about fashion and how things look, then marketing or advertising may be a good choice.

But, why specialize?

You may need to specialize for your MBA but that is just a requirement, so you just pick something that seems interesting, and finish the degree, but, you can keep abreast of the other areas also.

For me, at one point I was getting about 22 different journals from IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineering), and I found that though I was interested in some areas, the articles bored me, so I started to find what really peaked my interest.

You may want to do something like that, have choices in reading, and see what topics you continue to come back to, what interests you enough that you want to learn as much about it as you can, then, you may have found what you want to specialize in, for your studies.

In my mind I am hearing the ending of the poem "If" by Rudyard Kipling ( and now my son you have become a man :)

answered Dec 4 '09 at 03:59
James Black
2,642 points


I think it's good that you're thinking about specializing. Many a mid career crisis has been precipitated by waiting until your 40's to starting focusing on a specialized skill set.

When my son asked your analogous question on "who to marry", I told him the proper question is "Who can't you live without?" and counseled him to stay single until he had that answer. He married about 2 years later without question that he'd found his girl. I'm pretty sure he's thrilled that he waited.

So, by analogy, perhaps your not having a passion means you that you've not discovered it yet. You MBA is a great place to explore the question. Here's some ideas that may help:

  1. Most universities have career counseling tests that will help you think through what interests and motivates you deeply.
  2. Explore how you're wired. What do you do when you're doing what you want? Are there similarities between these activities and jobs you've had? (i.e. I'm with people, I'm alone, I'm problem solving, I'm having fun, etc.)
  3. If you're married ask your spouse what you're passionate about and what kind of career would make you really happy. You may learn something new.
  4. Ask you parents. Really. They probably know how you're wired an what drives you better than you do.
answered Dec 4 '09 at 06:37
Keith De Long
5,091 points

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