Multitasking Your Way To Mediocrity

Would you rather be good at many things, or the best at one thing? A generalist, or a specialist? Consider this: Specialists make the most headlines, the most money, the most difference in the world. Trying to be good at everything usually results in being mediocre.

For many years, all-season car tires were a perfect example of this: okay on dry pavement, okay in the rain, okay in snow, okay on ice; but not great at anything. They were a good compromise.

Some employees and teammates are like this. They’re good at many things, but not great at any one thing. Some would say that’s good, as a company and team needs people who just get things done.

But what if? What if a company had no employees who were just okay at things, but had an entire team of people who were specialists, who were superstars in their own area of expertise?

Some would say that’s utopian thinking and too idealistic. Is it? And even if it is a little idealistic, is it possible for a company to be made up of people who are great at what they do; people who are so confident and appreciated for what they contribute that they don’t bother trying to be more than what they are? In other words, they’re comfortable being the best at one simple thing. They have no need to try to impress others with all of things they know and can do. (This is a key point: Often, the reason people try to be good at everything is because they don’t receive enough recognition for what they’re really good at).

But, “What about sports teams made up of superstars, who under-perform as a team?”, you ask. All-star and some Olympic teams come to mind, right? I’m not suggesting that these superstars don’t need to work together as a team. In fact, as proven by some Olympic and All-star teams, teamwork is a must for peak performance. Lack of teamwork can rarely be made up for by a group of superstars.

The difference between the aforementioned superstar teams  and what I’m talking about is teamwork. Just because you have a group of superstars, doesn’t mean that they can’t work together as a team. In fact, if you have people who are great in their specific area, they complement each other, and build a stronger team (especially if each team member is appreciated and acknowledged for their contribution).

What often hurts teams is the lack of specialists. A team of good players, all trying to do a good job in the same area, will rarely be a strong team. And they’ll step on one another. Great teams have specialists in each critical area, and these specialists are comfortable knowing they’re doing their job, are respected and appreciated for it, and trust others on the team to do what they specialize in.

As Calvin Newport, author of How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out, says, “Being the best in a field makes you disproportionately impressive to the outside world. This effect holds even if the field is not crowded, competitive, or well-known… Employers don’t mind upsetting hard workers, but they fear losing stars.”

Focus on being the best in one area, being a specialist, being a superstar performer.

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2 Responses to “Multitasking Your Way To Mediocrity”

  1. Adam White says:

    You did a great job of outlining the specialist vs generalist problem that teams can run up against. Might there be situations where it’s good to have both types of behaviors on a team?

    What are some of the typical problems people can run up against in building a team of specialist? What are the strategies for dealing with these issues?


  2. Ross Bentley says:

    “Might there be situations where it’s good to have both types of behaviors on a team?” It makes logical sense to think that having some of both would be good. But, if you have a specialist for each position on the team, would you need a generalist?

    “What are some of the typical problems people can run up against in building a team of specialist? What are the strategies for dealing with these issues?” I suppose the problem with a team of specialists is that you could end up with each one wanting to be the star, or each one wanting to do their own thing. But if that was the case, it wouldn’t really be a team, would it? So, the strategy to deal with it would be to ensure that everyone operates as a team. Of course, that’s easier said than done, and perhaps a bigger subject than this space allows.

    Any ideas?