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In Defense Of Generalists

For most of my career, I’ve felt like an imposter, bouncing from one role to another without a clear direction. That was until I stumbled upon David Epstein's Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Suddenly, my zig-zagging, curiosity-led career wasn't a hot mess but a goldmine. Especially when it came to navigating those tricky "wicked environments" – situations so complex and unpredictable they don't have straightforward answers.






🎢 My Rollercoaster Ride


From crawling around refineries on the Gulf Coast wearing a hard-hat; to spearheading the growth of a global ed-tech startup; form fostering creativity and collaboration in companies; to steering leadership teams to be more inclusive and in-tune with customer needs, it’s been a wild ride! From the outside, my career likely seems schizophrenic. But for me? Every twist and turn brought its own fulfillment, its own lessons and it’s own joy. And today, I proudly flaunt my 'generalist' badge.


🛠️ Skills Beyond Job Titles


As I darted between roles, I didn't just pick up job-specific skills. I learned how to think in systems, the right growth levers to pull at the right time, and found new ways to solve problems by listening to what customers really need. I became adept at facilitating consensus across diverse groups and mastered the tightrope walk of aligning long-term visions with day-to-day actions.


💡 Jack of All Trades, Master of Many


Heard of it? Tim Ferriss nailed its essence in, The Top 5 Reasons to Be a Jack of All Trades. He believed that 80% of results can come from just 20% of effort, if directed rightly. It's not about doing everything; it's about doing the right things. This is how generalists learn many skills fast! In sales, for example, I found that truly listening to the customer, which might be just 20% of the job, can yield 80% of the results. Much more effective than the aggressive tactics many sales managers favor like cold-calling 100 customers.


⚠️ The Old 'Golden' Advice


"Pick a lane. Specialize. That's where success lies." What a load of crap! Just ask the scores of millennial tech workers who followed that golden path only to find it littered with layoffs, the chaos of pandemic-driven hybrid work, and the looming shadow of AI.


🤖 AI's Growing Role


AI thrives in domains defined by rules and patterns. While humans may labor for years over mastering a subject, AI can eclipse this expertise in a fraction of the time. Fields like coding and financial analysis, traditionally safe havens, are now on shaky ground.


🔗 Connecting the Dots


With AI automating specialized tasks, the world needs thinkers who can connect the dots, who can bridge the gaps between disciplines. People who don't just have skills, but also possess a higher order of thinking – the ability to be creative, to spot patterns, to adapt. Research from O.C.Tanner suggest nearly three-quarters (71%) of generalists prefer projects that challenge their skills and thinking. In creative problem-solving tasks requiring the synthesis of diverse ideas, another two-thirds (65%) of generalists shine.


🛠️ The Swiss Army Knife


Think of it this way. If life's a series of challenges, wouldn't you want a Swiss Army knife instead of just a screwdriver? That's the generalist's advantage. We have a broader toolset, making us invaluable as we stand on the precipice of an era defined by AI.


🍎 Taking a Cue from Steve Jobs


And if you're looking for a poster child for generalists, look no further than Steve Jobs. He wasn't the best coder, but his vast repertoire of skills allowed him to envision how different domains could harmoniously converge to create category defining products. In the words of Jobs, "You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward." This sentiment embodies the essence of a generalist.


🚀 So, where does this leave you?


If you're in the early innings of your career, let curiosity be your guide. Embrace diverse experiences; they'll serve you in ways you might not yet see. If you’re building your team and want to hire generalists, check out Hello Generalist. And if you find yourself at a career crossroads, consider going broad over deep. Diversifying your skill set might just be the change you need to reignite your passion.


Sources:

  1. Epstein, D. (2019). Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. New York: Riverhead Books.

  2. Ferris, T. (2007). The Top 5 Reasons to Be a Jack of All Trades.

  3. O.C. Tanner. (2023). Rise of the Generalist. Image sourced from the same report.



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