top of page
  • Staff

Generalist vs Specialist? Which Way to Go in Japan as Foreigner?


“The specialist era is waning. The future may belong to the generalist”

(Vikram Mansharamani, Harvard Business Review)

“The age of the generalist is over”

(Lynda Gratton, The Shift)

It is hard to say whether Adam Smith had foreseen how far this debate would go, but as any type of A vs B debate, as wine, it gets tastier as it ages.

As tempted as I am to say that generalists can connect the dots better, I would also say that the specialist era is far from waning. But allow me to postpone some flavoring for later.

Finding your place as professional in Japan

I strongly believe that the Japanese employment system will give more room for reforms. It will move to, at least, some kind of hybrid one - saving the social cohesiveness that the seniority system is credited with - more inclined towards performance-based system aiming at making Japan regain its world leadership. We can see signs of this happening not only in the law but also among the business community. Nonetheless, in the meantime, the seniority-based system still reigns, and the generalist view for the young is ingrained into it for reasons vastly written.

Although many young Japanese seem to be disowning this system, in overall, it can be said that a recent graduate can get by with the generalist mindset.

I expect I will convince you that, as a foreigner, imitation would not be wise for the following two reasons:

- The membership-based relationship, connected to the generalist approach, does not necessarily include foreigners. This is to say, Japanese companies almost take it for granted that foreign employees will not develop as strong ties to companies as their Japanese counterparts – but it does not follow from here that some years of commitment would not be very welcomed.

- As a foreigner, you probably have in mind some other countries, including your own, as workplace for your future professional development. In fact, foreigners are clearly more footloose than Japanese. It will be then a strategically good idea to develop solid specific skills if you want to enter the club of global talent.

You might argue: but generalists, even in western countries, are said, by many (as in the Harvard Business Review citation), to be in high esteem. I would concede if it were not for the fact that given the ever growing complex world in which we live, we should begin getting used to the idea that the Yes or No answer is an endangered species when dealing with equations with many variables.

It is important that we pay closer attention to the nuances so as to escape from the tramp of generalization. In doing so, you will find out that it might be as true that the age of the specialist for leadership positions might be weakening, as it is that becoming a world-class professional (e.g. engineer or scientist) without strong technical credentials is hard.

As examples, in Japan, R&D departments, venture firms and even big-size companies looking for mid-career hires, would be the places or occasions for a specialist. In the case of venture firms, for instance, they are looking for people who can contribute immediately.

[As reference, for Japan, remember that 総合職 (Sougou-shoku) is a hint word for a generalist position. For a specialist one, a good guide would be a very specific job title].

What do I believe is a good perspective for a young professional?

If I had to choose, I would first borrow the idea coined by the consulting company McKinsey and further popularized by Tim Brown from the design company IDEO, that the T-Shaped professionals will be the ones more in demand in this world. This is to say, those who have good expertise in one specific field (specialist) but at the same time are knowledgeable about others (generalist). This combination of skills allows them to smoothly and fluently fit into multidisciplinary teams, which is the working style of our new era.

You can get philosophical when “deciding” whether to hone first the horizontal or the vertical line of the T, but just remember the perspiration part, many writers like reminding, when talking about geniuses.

The 20-hour vs the 10,000-hour master

Daniel Levitin proposed the 10,000-hour rule for achieving world class mastery in any field. Malcolm Gladwell made that proposition into a story that gained many readers around the globe. Recently, another idea has also become popular and has even deserved a TED stage, this kind of be good at anything in 20 hours.

The comparison is a little capricious, but I bring it about in the belief that by pulling some extreme cases, I can still make the point that even if you do not aim at becoming a world-class master in some field (Gladwell is convinced that not everybody can, but for reasons different from having or not some genius gens), you will be well advised in recognizing that it takes time to acquire that “I” part of T.

As the saying goes, jack of all trades and master of nothing. You decide whether you want to be a “20-hour master” or a “10-thousand hour master” at least on the way. Jumping too fast from one field to another, and even aspiring to go to management position without building significant expertise and experience, may just lead you to losing your job to a T-shaped professional.

written by Sebastian