Generalists in an age of Specialists?

Firstly, we have to determine what we mean by Generalists. They are not just “non specialists”, or those with a varied background. Just as Specialists develop through “deliberate practice“, so Generalists develop through what I might term deliberate variety – the deliberate accumulation of varied experiences that will later interlink to create insight. To make the leap between disciplines.

Deliberate practice is best known in relatively narrow fields with clearly defined boundaries – most sports and many professions where what is required is to develop perfection in a limited range of moves through constantly stretching ourselves against ever more challenging goals. Incremental improvement down a fairly linear path.

Generalists however develop the ability to dance between disciplines. To recognise when techniques or ideas from one area might be applied in another. One example from innovation is exaption – an example being how the wine press was adapted to invent early moveable type printing presses.

Most good generalists will have early experience in a range of fields, only later focusing more closely on an area that attracts them. It seems that purpose is important here, as it gives a focus into which to introduce previously unrelated, often disparate ideas in pursuit of making a difference to something important.

The challenge is that most our our education, training, and reward systems run counter to this. The focus needed to get a job and earn a good living favours specialisation. Generalists either have a maverick streak, or the advantage of either not having to have, or wanting to have a “regular job”. They go where things interest them.

As the capabilities we have trained for, from the professions to any job with siginicant routine become usurped by artificial intelligence and machine learning, accessing and developing generalist thinking skills – critical thinking, creativity, curiosity – will become ever more important to organisations and individuals. Life is not logic. Serendipity is often what changes things, and serendipity does not have to be an accident.

Although it has become mainstream, often in pursuit of “performance”, Coaching is an inherently disruptive calling. We work with clients not to get them to comply or follow fixed protocols (more the realm of training) but to connect them to their purpose and talents, to develop them and use them in their career. And with a million middle managers hating their jobs, Coaching can be a powerful catalyst for serendipity.

We cannot decide to become a generalist overnight. It takes longer to become an effective generalist than a specialist, as the fields to be embraced are so much wider.

We all have the raw material – curiosity, and a desire to pursue something beyond more money.

It has been noted that we become the average of the five people we most associate with. Perhaps in your circle, it would pay to have a generalist.

Where we are heading needs explorers more than map readers.

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