When a child is born, you often hear parents in India saying, “Mera beta engineer banega” (“My son will become an engineer”) or “Meri beti doctor banegi” (“My daughter will become a doctor”). The longstanding conventional wisdom to get ahead in life has been to plan early, focus intensely and rack up as many hours of deliberate practice as possible towards a specific goal.
In his book, ‘Range — Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World’, David Epstein, examined the world’s most successful athletes, artists, musicians, inventors, forecasters and scientists. He discovered that in most fields — especially those that are complex and unpredictable — generalists, not specialists, are the ones that excel.
Merriam-Webster defines a generalist as “a person who knows something about a lot of subjects”. A specialist is defined as “a person who has special knowledge and skill relating to a particular job, area of study”.
The author’s research shows that generalists often find their path or true calling late, and they juggle many interests rather than focusing on one. As a result, they tend to be more creative, more agile, and able to make connections their more specialized peers can’t see.
Inspired by the book, Range, I recently shared my perspective on how being a generalist instead of a specialist can be beneficial to entrepreneurs. Was glad to see the post resonated with a lot of people.
Got a lot of responses and the ensuing comments provided me with a lot of food for thought and perspective. I wanted to share this crowdsourced wisdom.
Based on their experience a vast majority of folks agreed that being a generalist has its advantages.
Generalists are able to look at a scenario from multiple angles. Specialists tend to look at the world through a narrow lens- “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”
Another analogy is that of tunnel vision-
Specialization improves productivity but generalists are able to cross-pollinate ideas and innovate more.
Interesting perspective that raises the question, “What can employers do to identify and reward generalists?”
The need for a top-down approach to enabling talent-
Specialists excel at designing processes while generalists are able to look at the bigger picture. People need to be able to don different hats or learn to hire or delegate for skills they don’t possess.
There are people who disagreed with the premise that it is generalists who can succeed in the complex and unpredictable scenarios but offered interesting takes – The world needs both Generalists and Specialists for success.
One of the ways to encourage the generalist mindset at the office is to get both young and experienced employees to work on mini-projects across departments on a regular basis.
My belief is that knowledge is power in today’s world and having a good understanding of a wider selection of topics can be a unique advantage.