The Value Of Being a Generalist

Many of the most impactful individuals, both contemporary and historical, have been generalists: Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Richard Feynman, Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Marie Curie to name just a few. You would think that schoold and organizations would do more ot “attract and value” Generalists; but they don’t!

Though the internet has made knowledge accessible to anyone, the world celebrates and rewards specialization; education itself is optimized for specialization. Employers look at someone’s resume for evidence that the person is competent at the job, and the rule of thumb is “the more experienced you are the better”.

Innovation has many enemies, one of them is expertise. Generalists are innovators; so are specialists. But specialists, if they become dogmatic, become prisoners of their own knowledge and experience. “What you know limits what you can imagine”, if you let it. This is where Generalists come in…

What is the value of being a Generalist?

Generalists are mini-specialists, and very often go underused, are undervalued in organizations because “you’re all over the place”. In the corporate world, most organizations don’t know what to do with Generalists; but Generalists are Game-Changers for organizations that know how to unleash them! Organizations that are happy being stagnant, playing not to lose should not hire Generalists.

David Epstein took a deep dive into the value of Generalists in his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Here’s an animated video below that summarizes some of the key findings:

A Generalists greatest strength is the ability to integrate broadly because they have more diverse knowledge to pull from. Generalists have the advantage of interdisciplinary knowledge, which fosters creativity and a firmer understanding of how the world works. They have a better overall perspective and can generally perform second-order thinking in a wider range of situations than the specialist can.

Generalists often possess transferable skills, allowing them to be flexible with their career choices and adapt to a changing world. They can do a different type of work and adapt to changes in the workplace.

generalist vs specialist

From David Epstein’s book, Generalists…

  1. Surpass specialists later on, even if they start slower
  2. Flex different muscles
  3. Sample their interests and find the right fit
  4. Have a better toolbox for problem solving
  5. Focus on their narrative and can be stronger applicants
  6. Adapt better because of a broader set of skills

So, which is better? Specialists of Generalists? People at the highest level of business become Generalists because the job requires them to have a broader perspective. The problem is everyone starts out as a specialist because that’s what you’re hired to do. The established organizations that do hire Generalists do so because they value innovation, change and transformation. I once had a chat about this topic with a Harvard MBA that took a very specialized journey, my message was: I’m here to transform, you’re here to maintain.

That, to me, sums up specialists versus generalists when specialists can’t get out of their own way and stick to “what they know”.