The Born Freelancer on Being “Special”

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments. 


In my last post I briefly posited that the future of successful freelancing may well lie within specialization such as law, medicine, etc. and applying the insider knowledge from those worlds to one’s work as a freelancer. I thought I would follow that up today with a more detailed discussion on becoming a specialist versus being a generalist, both pros and cons.

When I started serious freelancing it was considered a distinct advantage to be a generalist, that is, to have as wide a background in as many areas of knowledge as possible to be applied to whatever gig arose. If I were starting out again today, however, I’m no longer so sure that would be the best advice to give or to receive.



It’s never boring

One of the advantages of freelancing as I first understood it was that a generalist approach would enable me to pursue any number of fascinating subjects and jobs without ever having to narrow down the choices and (in my mind) reduce the attractiveness of such a career. Not only was I a Born Freelancer – I was also a Born Generalist. It is hardly ever boring. And if I do get bored (rarely, if ever) I always have something new to pursue. Perhaps if I’d been more book smart I’d’ve ended up as an academic. Alas, I never was and so being a freelance generalist seemed to me to be the best way to justify pursuing so many different interests.


Being a generalist allows me to see patterns and influences from different areas. If creativity in part is the juxtaposition and integration of seemingly disparate approaches, points of view or even topics, then being a generalist is the ideal position in which to be creative. As a generalist, I can be working on science one week and something historical the next. But my brain subconsciously keeps comparing and contrasting topics even when I’m not aware of the process. As a result I can often suddenly sense a new pattern or a relationship providing a unique and refreshing angle for my work.


Perhaps the greatest argument for being a generalist is professional flexibility. You are capable of being parachuted into the widest variety of freelancing gigs possible. I have written for radio, tv, film, multimedia. I have done news, sports, interviews, even DJing on radio. I’ve covered almost every major category of topics in my writing to some extent or another. Of course, I have also found areas of interest that I was especially good at or successful in and have attempted to pursue with extra vigor. But the lure of an assignment in another area would eventually beckon – or the chance to use a media skill set I had not recently exercised – and soon I would depart on yet another great (or not so great) freelancing adventure.



I think it is arguably harder to achieve a successful brand these days as a generalist. Today, everyone needs to be readily identifiable. Being a generalist it seems harder to make that kind of brand as attractive and as distinctive. Being labeled as an aviation expert, a medical specialist or a educational consultant all seem to me to be a lot “sexier” and memorable than being tagged as a general freelancer who incidentally works in all those areas. As a result as a generalist your career may proceed in fits and starts. Just as you get established in one area you may suddenly veer off into a different area. This can make it extra hard to get known and successful.

A little knowledge…

It’s the old adage, being a jack of all trades and master of none. As a generalist you never live and breathe one particular topic or job 24/7. Therefore there is always the danger of opting for the easy solution or the surface approach when another deadline arrives. It is up to the competent freelancer to be aware of this and to always fight against it. In my mind, returning to a subject (rather than always staying with it) keeps it fresh and my interest in it alive. I will hopefully spot changes and variations in it since my last crack at bat. But it is a potential pitfall for all generalists to avoid.



This is the age of the specialist

Being a specialist makes self-branding easier. “I’m an Aviation Industry specialist”. “I’m a Food and Dietary expert”. “I’m a Tech Guru”. Did you notice? The word “freelance” didn’t come up at all. In fact it seems to come up (in public at least) less and less these days. People want instant experts. They want sources they can trust. They want insights to be good and they want them now. Specializing seems to cut out (in the public’s mind) any doubts and uncertainties. You are exactly what you say you are – now let’s hear what you have to say. As opposed to, well, this week I’m covering this topic and while I have a long background in it, it’s not the only area I am interested in. That might make you a much more colourful character in the long run but it can also be a harder sell in the short term.


We live in an era of incredible complexity and fast changing events. Specializing can give you the background experience and much needed opportunity to develop the laser focus required for many topics today – the ability to drill down into the heart of what matters. Technology, for example, is so fast changing and at times so bewildering that anyone other than a specialist would seem unable to keep up. Another example: world economics and politics seem to require someone with a lifetime of specialization in order to unravel the geopolitical miasma. A generalist doing the same job as effectively? Possible but less likely.



Less variety

If you are a sports commentator you are probably never going to get called upon to talk about travel to Mars (unless it is to expand the CFL up there!) By definition your domain will be highly restricted. To me, and to other generalists, that is a creative kiss of death. What if I want to talk and write about the inevitability of living on Mars? As a generalist I can probably place my work more readily than the specialist who – if they step outside of their own immediate field – may suffer a loss of reputation by going a bit too far “out there”.

The velvet rut

As a generalist I also believe that specializing could end up as a kind of velvet rut. You could get too comfortable and the challenge might start to dilute. I see and hear the exact same specialists talking and writing about the exact same topics year in and year out. Some are very good, most are competent, but too many eventually seem to lack the passion, the sense of curiosity and wonder that they might have once possessed. But I imagine that it is too good a gig for them to lose. I call that the velvet rut. (Of course, if you were born to specialize I can imagine there are always new and exciting challenges with which to combat any approach of ennui.)

Can’t see the trees?

When you specialize you can’t always see the bigger picture. You can get too cozy with the key players in your field and can self-identify more with them than with your audience. Think of some political specialists who later jumped sides and became directly involved in the political process on a local or national level. A good thing? Maybe, they certainly knew their way around. But maybe not so good when some of the very practices they would have once denounced and reported upon with outrage had became their own “normalized” approach to conducting business.



In the end it all depends upon the individual. I still recommend starting out as a generalist and exposing yourself to as wide a variety of topics and developing as many skill sets as possible. Like me, you may find being a generalist punches all the right buttons and enables you to instigate a career that is both creatively challenging and financially viable.

Of course, you may simply find a particular area or job to which you are inextricably drawn. In which case it makes a lot of sense to simply “go for it”.

Others may quickly find that they feel lost at sea as a generalist. There are too many choices and options and they begin to flounder. It is probably best for them to quickly find a specialty and pursue it to the best of their strengths and abilities.

If all things are equal and you find yourself drawn to neither one approach nor the other, once you have gained some experience as a generalist I would seriously suggest investigating the specialist option. It could well mean the difference between success and failure in the future for your freelancing career.


Are you a specialist or a generalist? Please share your thoughts on the pros and cons of each career path in the comments section below.

Posted on May 30, 2014 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: ,

Leave a Reply