The Swiss-knife generalist

Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule has may takers and as a society we usually celebrate specialist in different areas. This article and related talk however discuss being a “generalist”, often ignored with a contemptuous “jack of all trades” remark. This is not to undermine importance of a specialist, their contributions are helpful as well, but it is more about acknowledging the importance of a generalist.

Moreover, we may have a predisposition toward a certain career concept – so a person interested in gaining deeper knowledge about a specific subject is more likely to be fulfilled in a specialist/expert role. Likewise, a person with varied interests and exposure would be better off in a cross-functional, generalist role.

Specialist Vs. Generalist

David Epstein is an author and a scientific research reporter. In this TED talk ‘Why specializing early doesn’t always mean career success’, he talks about people from different fields who took their time to explore their options, experimented with their choices (sampling period), and then picked up their own pursuit(s). He mentions that though early specialist might start earning better in the beginning, in the long run generalist often do better due to the deeper understanding of their life choices and their chosen work.

Among others, Epstein cites examples of two legendary sportsmen – Tiger Woods (early specialization) and Roger Federer (late specialization). He explains the crucial distinction between ‘kind learning environment’ (such as golf, chess) versus ‘wicked learning environments’ (real life itself), and he argues that a specialist might struggle with the later in the long run. This is how he elaborates it –

So here we are in the wicked work world, and there, sometimes hyperspecialization can backfire badly. For example, in research in a dozen countries that matched people for their parents’ years of education, their test scores, their own years of education, the difference was some got career-focused education and some got broader, general education. The pattern was those who got the career-focused education are more likely to be hired right out of training, more likely to make more money right away, but so much less adaptable in a changing work world that they spend so much less time in the workforce overall that they win in the short term and lose in the long run.

Do listen to this talk, he has many more interesting, research-backed stories from different fields –

The long & winding path of a generalist

David Epstein offers this suggestion to thrive in the challenging, ever-changing wicked world, and I like it better with the visual that he has presented for a generalist finding his way through ups & downs –

Specialist Vs. Generalist
Specialist Vs. Generalist (PC: Screenshot from the talk)

So if hyperspecialization isn’t always the trick in a wicked world, what is? That can be difficult to talk about, because it doesn’t always look like this path. Sometimes it looks like meandering or zigzagging or keeping a broader view. It can look like getting behind. But I want to talk about what some of those tricks might be. If we look at research on technological innovation, it shows that increasingly, the most impactful patents are not authored by individuals who drill deeper, deeper, deeper into one area of technology as classified by the US Patent Office, but rather by teams that include individuals who have worked across a large number of different technology classes and often merge things from different domains.

~ David Epstein

This is an important point to ponder over – many innovations have come from non-experts, when people tried to combine knowledge, experience from multiple fields. Design/design thinking often follow multi-disciplinary approach for coming up with the most effective solutions. That also reminds me of the famous coinage talent-stack by the creator of Dilbert – Scott Adams. By his own admission, he is a cartoonist without much artistic talent, not a great writer, having ordinary business sense. Additionally, he also has strong work ethic, risk tolerance and sense of humour. When he combines all of these average talents, he has a unique talent stack that makes him successful.

Moreover, such multi-functional generalists with unusual breadth become immensely valuable with their inter-disciplinary insights. David Epstein emphasizes importance of such broad individuals and how we fail to understand their spectrum quite well –

Interestingly, a broad individual could not be entirely replaced by a team of specialists. We probably don’t make as many of those people as we could because early on, they just look like they’re behind and we don’t tend to incentivize anything that doesn’t look like a head start or specialization.

Going deeper

If you’re curious want to delve deeper, you can browse/read some of these books:  RANGE: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (by David Epstein himself) elaborating more on the concepts discussed in this talk (even Malcolm Gladwell has praised this book, for proving him wrong :)), and How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big (By Scott Adams) explaining talent stack and some of his own experiences.

The featured image:

The featured image by 金召 步 from Pixabay and I’m using it here with gratitude.

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