THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Be special: Generalists spread too thin

Linda Chernoff is decked out in a black floor-length gown and heels. She has the conversational skills of a socialite and team-building talents of a top executive. Her rÈsumÈ could start with her prized "people skills" as an entrÈe to almost any career, but instead she focuses herself more narrowly: event planner.

Good move. The best way to ensure you'll always be in demand is to become a specialist.

In Hollywood terms, this means you should typecast yourself. Ezra Zuckerman, associate professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management, spent three years studying actors' careers and concluded that even though actors see typecasting as deadly, it is, in fact, a ticket to a solid career. Actors who get typecast early on get more work, more consistently.

The typecasting rule applies to other careers; specializing is a way to differentiate yourself. Many people describe themselves as generalists so as not to eliminate job prospects. However, specializing makes you more likely to be hired and hunted. Zuckerman explains, "Headhunters are specialized, and they look for something they can package and sell. Since a candidate search is specialized, the headhunter is not set up to process people who don't fit into a specialty."

As with almost all career advice, solid execution requires knowing where your gifts lie. And, like most people, Chernoff was not initially sure. She started out as a law firm administrator, then worked in publicity at Temple University. Her favorite part of that job was planning events. Now she's development associate for special events at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Specialization is the goal, but be wary of too much or too early. If your specialty is marketing on Mars, you'll be the only person in your field, but you probably won't get paying gigs. Even a reasonable specialty can go awry if you limit yourself before you know enough.

Some experts believe it's good to develop one or more areas of deep expertise over time. In the beginning focus on learning communication techniques and job skills. Then learn to manage the job and develop as a leader.

Even though you might take yourself out of the running for some jobs, if you don't position yourself as extremely good at something, you'll never have a chance at a top position.

While it may seem counterintuitive, snottiness is part of specializing, because committing to a path requires an implicit revelation that you think you'll succeed. Conversely, generalizing often looks weak, lacking direction or commitment. While it can be useful as a hedging strategy in a volatile industry, if you see yourself going to the top, you need to sell yourself as a specialist, not someone hedging for a darker day.

It's scary to specialize because there's the chance you'll choose something in which you can't succeed. But you can always try again.