How to cultivate the Generalist within

The Creative GeneralistAs a rule of thumb, your business needs more generalists than specialists if it wants to innovate. Don’t get me wrong, specialists are valuable. But Generalists are the innovators, the ones who are most capable of dealing with complexity; the ones that connect that dots. For that very reason, as a generalist, I know it’s hard to get us to pay attention to anything uninteresting; much less get inspired. We need to be challenged; constantly. We also need to be unleashed; not managed.

But for an organization that is willing to change, as your own, you can turn yourself into a generalist, create the conditions for great ideas to emerge and spark the innovation mindset in your business.


Simple: broaden yourself.

Here are a few ways how I do it:

Weekend reading and learning

Though I read quite a lot during the week (at least one book, articles, tweets, comments, threads on LinkedIn, conversations with people, etc..), I use the weekend to read about new stuff. For example, last month I started listening to a very interesting podcast called Gastropod, which looks at food through the lens of science and history; it’s a completely different way to explore the future of food.

As a result I’ve become obsessed with learning about food-replacements, such as a drink called Soylent.

Similar to using weekends to learn something entirely new, though I’ve not done it in a while because I can get that content digitally, I used to have a routine at the beginning of every month where I would go to a Barnes & Noble or Borders, sit down for a 3 to 5 hours and read through every type of magazine I could get my hands on.

I usually arrived at 10 AM and stayed there until I got hungry. Believe me ,

Scientific American, Popular Science, National Geographic, video games, cars, lifestyle, celebrity stuff, culture stuff, business, home decoration, architecture, military, aviation, etc..; you name it.

Before I started this routine, I had subscriptions to about 16 different magazines which I would read within the day that I got them. As you can imagine, maintaining a growing collection of magazines became a hassle. So, that’s when my routine was born.

P.s. I still have most of those magazines 🙂

Talk to one new and different person, at the very least, per week

I touched on this tactic in a previous post about driving innovation within the enterprise. Basically, you want meet new and different people who can provide you a different perspective and to create a situation where great ideas emerge; with this tactic you are deliberately trying to create serendipity.

Twitter, which is serendipitous by nature, is an excellent platform for finding, following and connecting with people you would never think of connecting with. Because it is quite open, people expect surprise to happen; I’ve taken advantage of this.

My approach is to setup a 30 minute Skype call with some I connected with on Twitter. The 30 minutes usually goes longer, and that’s key because it means you will gain a new follower who will be on the lookout for what you are doing; and viceversa.

I’ve met my most interesting collaborators using this method.

Being a Generalist is a journey of surprise

To cultivate the generalist within, become an avid reader of both fiction and non-fiction. Pick up a magazine or explore a website that you normally wouldn’t find interesting. Find a subject that intrigues you outside of work and really research it. Travel, go out, ask questions, take a chance; surprise yourself!

Bottom line: Be interested. For generalists, learning is a habit. We don’t think about it, we just do it; constantly. Remember, the best leaders are pattern thinkers; they never stop learning. So hang out with generalists, I guarantee you will become more curious; and more interesting. And you and your business will benefit from it immensely.