It’s Time for the Generalist

Inspired by entries in Smashing Magazine and Psychology Today, I had been working on this article for some time; but spending an evening with the self-help mob the other night, where Barbara Winter made a plea for the return of the Renaissance Man, I was prompted to post it right away. 

Why do I make this claim?


“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”  Robert Heinlein: Time Enough for Love, The Notebooks of Lazarus Long 1973


“…where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.”  Karl Marx, The German Ideology 1846

Jack of all trades

I’m a freelancer, and as such my team is small. Of course it is, there’s currently only me. Small teams require everyone to pitch in and do whatever needs to be done, which requires me to tend to many tasks. Yes, working on my own requires me to be a Jack of many trades. That old chestnut.

Now you and I know that “Jack of all trades, master of none” is a figure of speech used to diminish a person who is competent in many skills but somehow not necessarily outstanding in any particular one. Actually, the earliest recorded versions of the phrase do not contain the second half of the sentence and they were broadly positive in tone. Such Jacks were seen as masters of integration, individuals who knew enough from many learned trades and skills to be able to bring those disciplines together in a practical manner – the portrait of a Generalist rather than a Specialist.

Alternative labels did exist to describe the Generalist, such as hybrid, polymath, the all-rounder, Renaissance (wo)man. Those who were exceptional in many disciplines were known as polymaths or “Renaissance men” (witness Leonardo da Vinci, every Generalist’s role model). The hybrid example embodies the idea of craftsman or woman: aka someone who works across specializations, someone who understands how all the pieces come together, and especially, someone who cares about quality at every level.

The English language version of the first part of the Jack phrase appeared in print in 1618 from Geffray Minshull, gaining currency in America from 1721. No-one knows when the second part of the phrase was added, but goodness me, was it only during the 20th Century that the phrase gained an increasingly cynical connotation? These days, Americans like to hang on to an anonymous fuller version of the phrase on order to restore the original intention:

“Jack of all trades, master of none,

Though oftentimes better than master of one.”

For me, being such a Jack means that I stay agile and adaptable to changes in my industry. Vitally, I retain full responsibility for R&D, the heartbeat of any business. I am not blinkered in my area of expertise like the Specialist who cannot spot new opportunities or, worse, the slow demise of his or her niche. Have no fear, I do keep an eye on emerging trends and technologies as does any Specialist worth his or her salt. The difference is that in addition I capture trends that do not fall into their silos, new opportunities which I assess for investment.

Complementary opposites?

Let us not descend into facile opposition, however. I think setting up an opposition at this historical moment between the Generalist and the Specialist is going to be counter-productive. The roles might be contradictory, but the relative status of the two needs swift resolution. The roles might be complementary, but the value system of the knowledge economy – an extension of nineteenth century capitalism – has severely curtailed esteem for the Generalist.

I actually see no negative correspondence between doing multiple things for a living and being a Generalist. I may well be very passionate about a domain and even master of a domain, yet I may not earn my living in traditional narrowly-defined employment categories. The tension here is between Theodore Millon‘s Broad vs Narrow modes of cognition/abstraction. This tension catches many aspects to which this post alludes but I want to ditch the oppositional notion at its heart and replace them more with what I would call contradictory positions:

  • Specialist (narrow and fragmented knowledge) vs Generalist (shallow/thin-sliced knowledge over broadly defined domains).
  • More helpfully, Focus vs Distraction (or should I say focus versus less latent inhibition, more loose associations and more creativity).
  • Or Sequential vs Simultaneous (right brain/left brain? language vs spatial?).
  • Why not Exploitation (of skills in a domain) vs Exploration (trying on multiple roles/domains)?

I’d also add to this list:

  • Analysis (trying to take apart things) vs Synthesis (trying to unify things) and
  • Experimentation (ruling out hypothesis: converging ) vs Theory (generating more hypothesis: diverging).

This contradictory view gives me more potential for work as I am able to adapt to new circumstances – were the Generalist flavour of the month, which he or she is not as we know. I am always on the lookout for new ideas to explore and I am ideally positioned to move early into new fields. I can take also projects through from start to finish. Like the startup founder, my wide knowledge base enables me to take bigger risks and do something others would not dare (yet). Interestingly, there are indeed occasions when I need to turn to a Specialist and I often get some of them work.

Knowledge is not The Mind

As the knowledge base has increased in size, specialization has come to replace the Generalist. This has introduced an implacable logic into which we have all become locked. The downgrading of the polymath is an understandable phenomenon when the notion of education becomes the simple transfer of the body of knowledge, as is currently the case in many advanced economies. Since this body has now become so huge and which single individuals are brought to despair of ever acquiring, if young people are not to drown in detail then it is quite logical to force them into niche learning, and by rote, by the time they reach their teens. For is it not true that where once there was a single job there are now many, with ever narrower spheres of responsibility?

The price of all this has been a loss of mind, by which is meant a general neglect to develop minds that are trained to deal with the complex problems of today, in the comprehensive and complex manner that the management of such problems require.

I’m a better performer in whatever capacity I adopt, because I engage continually with many disciplines, techniques, skills and interests. This constant variety of disciplines drives me to continually learn new things and/or face new challenges. This makes me flexible, able to work on quite diverse tasks, and I thrive on variety. And so I have more opportunity to explore new developments, techniques and technologies. Because I look beyond the silos at emerging developments, I encourage cross-collaboration. Being able to participate across a more diverse range of activities makes me a skilled strategist. Finally, through my activities, I chronicle (and where useful I revive) former knowledge sets, making a larger contingent of humanity aware that such things exist through my extensive networks.

Generalists are talented people with a passion for knowledge. As a lifelong learner I think I will always be a Generalist. Generalists tend to test higher for intuition, a valuable trait for someone who must synthesize solutions from disparate parts, very often bending the rules and any technical limitations to achieve great work. The intuitive mind doesn’t require all of the minute details to understand the value and capability of the whole (although curiosity may lead one to seek out all of the details anyway). 

Avoiding the Negative

When all one’s eggs are in one basket, adaptation becomes difficult. Deep domain knowledge (that is, edge-to-edge knowledge of a field) does remain incredibly valuable, helping Specialists understand where the edges are, giving them the confidence to be selective, to develop a taxonomy, to see what is going on.

Clients may not yet recognize the need to pay for a broader skill set but it cannot be long now; Generalists get the jobs in a collapsing economy.

It seems quite straightforward to conclude that in the current climate of reduced opportunity, specializing too narrowly is actually dangerous for your career. Were one to consider this situation in its complexity, I might add that you risk losing control of your career, by becoming just a tool for others to use. You might be extremely good at one thing, but can you see the bigger picture, can you connect the dots? Experts become more rigid and less agile over time, and run the risk of a built-in obsolescence, having knowledge about something that will become obsolete in the future. Things change all the time and you have to roll with them or eventually just wither away.

As any manager will tell you – even those working in an Expert environment – managing a team with a variety of skill sets requires a wide range of experience. Any individual in a management position must to some extent be a Generalist. Specializing too strongly makes it impossible to climb up the ladder, or to be able to start your own business; for as they say, best is the enemy of the good.

So the argument that “mastery will make one happier” does not stand up to closer scrutiny, and is antithetical to much happiness research, which recommends the option of settling for “good enough” to remain in healthy balance.

We don’t get it easy

Those that are still locked into the need for the Expert say that people suffer from being a Generalist. It seems to be true that Generalists peak later than Specialists and struggle to demonstrate value in the current context where only the Expert is valued. I am a Generalist – that is, a person who provides broad perspectives, a trained person of the highest ability benefitting from a lifetime of experience. Doomed some will say, for who values the generality over the specific at the moment? But just look where one hundred years of Experts has got us.

In the current climate it is rather unhelpful to the Expert that Specialism has come to be used as shorthand to enhance personal quality, because the term differentiates you from the sea of Generalists. Now what sea might that be? Given the paucity of Really Useful Generalists, this “sea” can only mean that we have been lumped in with the lumpen “Ignorant”. Actually there are other valid indicators they could use: how about a definition of expertise according to the quality of the work, the knowledge of the sector, or the breadth of both the experience and the knowledge? Hmm, sounds too much like the Generalist?

Interestingly, it is known that Generalists are often people who once lost a paid position: this makes them tend to keep their skills broad and their options diverse, for the sake of self-preservation. It is worth remembering in this context that what Darwin actually meant by evolution was that natural selection is driven by the survival of the fit enough: “the survival of the fittest” is a phrase actually coined by Herbert Spencer and not scientifically accurate. (BTW, for the record and as a nice a paraphrase as it is, nor did Darwin say it was the “survival of the most adaptable”, a phrase seemingly coined by Megginson in 1963.)

Generalists operate at these same levels as the Specialist but show their value in multiple domains. Multiple knowledge does however increase the time needed to create an impressive portfolio of work. For people like us, it is a constant race to learn. We continually have to digest content from a massive variety of sources and decide on what is of value and what to ignore. This is incredibly demanding, for we must avoid dismissing something which we later will discover was worthy of our attention. Generalists may lose out on the money but tight budgets spark ingenuity.

It is harder for a Generalist to establish him or herself as an expert and stand out from the crowd, but true Generalists with an extensive knowledge of a broad range of subjects see more, learn more (and faster) than the Experts who surround them. They say Generalists are rarely the innovators yet we march very closely behind the vanguard, the early adopters, adapting their new ideas to the mainstream.

Greeting the Positive

Being a Generalist is a superb career path, for it keeps my options open. My knowledge coverage is horizontal, not handicapped by an overly deep engagement in any specific field, allowing my interests to broaden continuously. I own my own business and can attest to the benefits of being a Generalist. It helps me stay informed on a range of topics and to sell them to my clients. It also helps me understand how people work across disciplines and so make sure that they work well together. This ability to think outside the prevailing patterns makes innovation possible.

My brain seems to be wired to be a great expanding Generalist. This requires great discipline, to ensure that I stay on track, for those tangential interests that continually bombard me are both a blessing and a curse. Paradoxically, we have now reached a point where the very fact that disciplines have become so complex now actually calls for Generalists, that is people who can look beyond the silos of the Specialists, increasingly reduced to approaching a problem from the standpoint of their own specialism.

Being a Generalist actually makes things easier. We solve problems much faster than Experts due to our rich experience in other fields. It happens all the time I know but it is important not to confuse Generalist with being unskilled, for a Generalist is someone who is actually knowledgeable across a range of subjects.

A Generalist can in fact do most of what a Specialist is doing, even if he or she won’t be able to actually do all that the Expert does. However, when push comes to shove, the Generalist will always win, because of their widespread set of skills and their understanding of the bigger picture.

As specialization continues to become the frenzied trend, I’m confident that the value of the Generalist will only increase. The freedom to explore and push ideas and concepts further than other talented practitioners to reveal hidden clarity and insight is becoming like gold dust. Probably the biggest hurdle when dealing with the Generalist stigma is maintaining confidence in ones experience(s).

Unlike Specialists, Generalists never need to make excuses for knowing and being good at a lot of stuff; they just need to know when to bring in the specialized talent. All of the Generalists out there, comfortable in their skin, marching along to several symphonies simultaneously rather than a single drum, leveraging the full breadth of knowledge and experience that they gather as they make their way through this crazy maze of life, need to remember only one thing: ‘Variety IS the spice of life.’

To conclude…

“Whistler could produce art; and in so far he was a great man. But he could not forget art; and in so far he was only a man with the artistic temperament. There can be no stronger manifestation of the man who is a really great artist than the fact that he can dismiss the subject of art; that he can, upon due occasion, wish art at the bottom of the sea. Similarly, we should always be much more inclined to trust a solicitor who did not talk about conveyancing over the nuts and wine. What we really desire of any man conducting any business is that the full force of an ordinary man should be put into that particular study. We do not desire that the full force of that study should be put into an ordinary man. We do not in the least wish that our particular law-suit should pour its energy into our barrister’s games with his children, or rides on his bicycle, or meditations on the morning star. But we do, as a matter of fact, desire that his games with his children, and his rides on his bicycle, and his meditations on the morning star should pour something of their energy into our law-suit. We do desire that if he has gained any especial lung development from the bicycle, or any bright and pleasing metaphors from the morning star, that they should be placed at our disposal in that particular forensic controversy. In a word, we are very glad that he is an ordinary man, since that may help him to be an exceptional lawyer.” G.K. Chesterton, Heretics

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