Let us pause to praise the generalist.
For the past several decades, the specialist has held sway. Employers were told they needed people on board who did one thing and one thing well. In turn, career and business experts told us to brand ourselves, to make sure we were known for something in particular.
Don’t be a generalist, a jack-of-all-trades, they advised. You’ll confuse the people who would hire you. They won’t value the skills you offer, like the ability to bring together facets of multiple disciplines. Instead, they’ll view you as a dilettante, less than serious about your career and intellectual pursuits.
Seth Godin is a lead spokesman for this viewpoint, that lack of specialty is another word for second rate. “A woodpecker can tap twenty times on a thousand trees and get nowhere, but stay busy. Or he can tap twenty-thousand times on one tree and get dinner,” Godin wrote in The Dip. “The next time you catch yourself being average when you feel like quitting, realize you have only two good choices: Quit or be exceptional,” he continues. “Average is for losers.”
Career specialization is default behavior. We become consumed by daily tasks. We become ever more dedicated to a particular pursuit. We’re told it’s the most efficient way to become better at our jobs. Will this guarantee success? Sure, if you play professional tennis.
But in the view of Carter Phipps, the author of Evolutionaries, we’ve made a terrible mistake. In his view, we’ve managed to specialize ourselves into a ditch.
Overspecialization has its victims: think of the unemployed factory workers and mortgage brokers trying to figure out what to do next. Think of the housing experts who did not realize that their economic models were wrong until it was way too late. We’ve been living with the results.
“Over the past decades, there has been a growing sense that the critical role that a generalist plays in society is being forgotten, with dangerous consequences for culture,” Phipps recently wrote on The Huffington Post. “In discipline after discipline, experts have raised concerns that our knowledge base has privileged depth and detail over breadth and context.”
We were not always like this. Until the twentieth century, an educated person was considered to be someone who could discourse intelligently and authoritatively on subjects ranging from science and politics to art and economics–you’d call a person well rounded, or even, on a rare occasion, a renaissance man.
This model shifted as a result of the fantastic advances in sciences over the course of the 20th century. It takes years of dedicated study to master the arcane but impossibly important points in the fields of neurology to physics. Academia demanded specialists.
In turn, the specialization mantra filtered through society, leading to an explosion of experts, be they authorities on the language of computer programming or 17th-century sonnets.
Facts, however, do not equal context. The information age has left many of us so overwhelmed with data, we can miss the bigger picture. We live in a cacophony of fact overload. As Phipps puts it, “We are data rich and meaning poor.”
This is where the generalist can help out. The generalist is an idea surfer, riding the waves of various disciplines, synthesizing information to create a unique view of the world. She is polymorphous in thought and flexible in action. She is the person who can handle multiple demands. According to the research of University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Philip Tetlock, the multidisciplined are more likely to sense a general pattern, with the result that they are better at predicting outcomes–both good and bad–than supposed experts.
As the founder of Betterment, a financial services industry startup, I believe that a company needs both specialists and generalists to thrive. Many of my hires at Betterment are not just financial experts. Sure, many come from financial backgrounds but I want to hear the insights of well-rounded men and women who could make suggestions based on how people handled their money in real life, not recommendations from experts who believe they know how people should manage their funds.
I’m the first to admit that I probably would not get that far without bringing specialists on board. These people know how to exactly implement the information the generalist has pieced together from multiple sources. Yet I encourage everyone at Betterment to move beyond the boundaries of their specialty. Nimble startups require nimble minds.