Don't specialize, hybridize

2 minute read

Specialization is too heavily encouraged as a career path.

Becoming a generalist is one alternative, but there is another path less discussed: become a hybrid.

The hybrid path means developing expertise in two or more distinct areas. Having several specialities allows you to see patterns that no one else can see, and make contributions that no one else would think of. The world needs more hybrid people.

Specialization is attractive. Many famous people you know are specialists. Specialization feels like the only way to pick the high-hanging fruit in fields where the low branches are bare. Specialization feels like a more predictable and measurable path.

The world needs more hybrid people because the world is getting more complex. Specialists are important because they help us push the limits in each field. But we also need people who can see the big picture, find unexpected connections, and guide the world’s efforts.

There are more than two paths to acquiring expertise

Having a wide base of skills with one or two specialties gives you more tools in your toolbox — more ways to solve problems.

Sampling a breadth of different fields allows you to discover which specialties you want to go deep on, and you’ll build up a more diverse toolbox along the way.

The T-shaped hybrid path is one that many curious people follow. You grow your skillset and experience in areas that are adjacent to your dominant expertise. For example engineering and design, or singing and dancing.

The U-shaped path means developing skills that are not often found together. Like engineering and dancing, or singing and design.

Some of my favorite people to collaborate with are T-shaped. They tend to be natural leaders because they understand how different responsibilities overlap, and how to construct effective teams and processes.

Being U-shaped requires bravery, because it’s so unusual. U-shaped people tend to be subjected to greater skepticism, because no one else really understands what they alone can see. Yet these intersections can lead to the greatest breakthroughs.

My hunch is that we need a lot more U-shaped hybrids because they are the plateau-breakers.

Hybrid people are important for the same reason that composite materials and alloys are important. From Wikipedia:

These constituent materials have notably dissimilar chemical or physical properties and are merged to create a material with properties unlike the individual elements.

By becoming a hybrid, you can become greater than the sum of your skills.

By becoming a hybrid you can choose how you want to be unique. Countless unique combinations are available to you.