Generalist or specialist?

Generalist or specialist?

December 15, 2019 0 By Rick

When it comes to education, the debate about generalist versus specialist has gone on for ages – go deep versus go wide! The pendulum swings in favor of one only to shift to the other and then back again. I will declare my bias from the get-go; I’m a generalist and proud of it. There, I’ve said it, so please keep this in mind as you read on. The U.S. Department of State groups its foreign service officers (diplomats) into generalists and specialists, as does the medical community and many other professions. So, which is best? Should you strive to be a “jack-of-all-trades and a master of none” or, as the Chinese say, “Equipped with knives all over, none of which is sharp,” or focus like a laser on learning all you can about a particular field? It’s not an easy choice. I’ve tried so many different jobs and careers that I’ve wondered if I suffer from CADS (Career Attention Deficit Syndrome). OK, I admit, I made this up, but you get the point, I hope. So, what’s a young person to do today when faced with this decision? Or even a middle-aged or older person for that matter? Do you go deep or go wide?

You don’t have to be a genius
One of my favorite quotes is by Thomas Huxley: “Strive to learn something about everything and everything about something.” People who can master multiple subjects have traditionally been called Renaissance men or women. Many influential men and women possess a high number of varied interests and talents, which is the very reason that they are so successful. But you don’t have to be a genius to become one. You just need to have an interest in a variety of subjects and disciplines. When I look back at the many jobs I’ve had over my life, I can find no rhyme or reason or overarching strategy in taking them. I think I was open to just about anything and everything that came my way and enjoyed trying new things. After all, I didn’t know what I could do unless I tried.

No easy task
Studying different subjects and mastering them is no easy task, of course. The sheer amount of information and number of careers available today would drive Renaissance man da Vinci crazy. If you devote a considerable amount of time and expertise to just one field, you’ll have little time to dedicate to mastering other subjects. And that makes many people give up and just focus on one thing. Many people believe you can’t really learn after a certain age or that it becomes much more difficult. Newsflash – that’s not true! Yes, it’s easier to learn when we’re younger, but if we “exercise” our nucleus basalis (located in the basal forebrain), there’s no reason why we can’t continue to learn as we age. The nucleus basalis produces a neurotransmitter that determines the rate at which new connections are made between brain cells. This brings me to a favorite Mahatma Gandhi quotes: “Live as if you will die tomorrow. Learn as if you will live forever.” Learning is a life-long pursuit. 

“Specialization is for insects”
Robert Heinlein, a popular science fiction author, once said: “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.” Recent research has shown that multidisciplinary study benefits learning, self-expression and scientific progress. A University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine study found that medical students increased their observational recognition skills after taking an art class. Don’t limit yourself to only studying one small slice of life – go for the whole pie! In fact, go for as many pies as you want. Whichever you decide to be – generalist or specialist – tackle it with zeal and reckless abandon!

David Epstein’s new book: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World is mind-blowing. It turns established concepts upside down, in my opinion. In the book, Epstein advocates that the path to success is not what we’ve been told. Instead of going deep (being a specialist), it’s going wide (being a generalist). He cites many reasons for this, such as what economists call “match fit,” and most everyone else calls “doing what you love for a living.” According to Epstein, “people with wider ranges and longer sampling periods (trying out lots of different things) end up far happier with what they do for a living and are, on average, more successful.” He also says that “learning is best done slowly to accumulate lasting knowledge, even when that means performing poorly on tests of immediate progress. That is, the most effective learning looks inefficient; it looks like falling behind.” According to his research, repetition is less critical than struggle when it comes to learning and gaining lasting knowledge. “For a given amount of material, learning is most efficient in the long run when it is really inefficient in the short run,” Epstein says. Wow! Give that a moment to sink in.

To survive in today’s world where AI (Artificial Intelligence) is on the rise, you need a broad foundation, Epstein says. When you “stovepipe” or “silo” yourself, you’re taking a considerable risk. And that’s because AI is rapidly acquiring more of the skills that we used to think only humans could perform. To stay competitive in the marketplace, you’re much better off with breadth, perspective and a wide range of experience. When I was at university, a professor once told me that of all the subjects one could study, geography would provide the greatest breadth of knowledge for the future, assuming you weren’t planning a legal, medical or engineering career, of course. (Did I mention that he was a geography professor?) Or is the answer to be found in Michelangelo’s famous quote at age 87, “I’m still learning.” That sounds like a great deal of breadth to me. I’m all for going wide!

Short-term planning
Epstein cites a study conducted by Todd Rose, director of Harvard’s Mind, Brain and Education program, and computational neuroscientist Ogi Ogas, who set out to investigate the unusually winding career paths of successful people. They called these people “dark horses,” and the results of the study surprised them. According to Rose and Ogas, dark horses are focused on who they are right now, their motivations right then, what they like to do, what they want to learn and the opportunities present then. They are focused on “finding the best match for them right now,” and maybe they’ll switch to something better in a year. When the dark horses looked back over their lives, what all these successful people had in common was short-term planning. They weren’t afraid they would fall behind by switching jobs when they realized their current jobs were not the right match for them. They dared to change.

My advice
I can almost hear you now: “Oh crap! Here comes yet another boomer offering unsolicited advice.” Here it comes anyway. The person you are today is not the person you were in the past, nor is it the person you will be in the future. We grow and change in ways that we can’t envision. Why should you be expected to know what career you want without having tried a variety of jobs? That would be a bit like speed dating and marrying the first person you spoke with. Don’t lock yourselves into life-long career commitments unless you’re sure that’s your calling, passion or purpose. And if you do, you must be aware that what is your calling, passion or purpose today might change drastically at some point down the road. I hated English in school and thought education was boring, yet I taught English for many years. I had zero interest in political science and international relations, yet I became a diplomat. And I never, ever thought I’d be blogging in my 70s! Epstein says, “our work preferences and our life preferences don’t stay the same because we don’t stay the same.” Remember what Alice from “Alice in Wonderland” said when asked to share her story. “I’ll start with this morning because it’s no use going back to yesterday,” she said, “because I was a different person then.” As your life story evolves, don’t be afraid to keep looking for your match fit. By the way, I can heartily recommend David Epstein’s book. It’s a fantastic read!