The Importance of Being a Generalist in a Specialized World
- David Epstein’s new book, Range, examines how generalists triumph in a specialized world.
- Conventional wisdom tells us that succeeding in becoming an expert takes years of specialized work and practice.
- Epstein argues that generalists who think broadly are the ones who will excel.
When we think of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, we think of the term “Renaissance man.” They were knowledgeable about a wide variety of things and remembered for their lasting contributions to the fields of art, science, architecture, and poetry. They were, in today’s terms, extremely successful generalists.
When we think of generalists, we may think “jack of all trades, master of none.” Not exactly a compliment, is it? But that phrase is incomplete. It’s often quoted that way, but the full saying is “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.” Well, that sheds some new light! In fact, a book written earlier this year by David Epstein, Range, posits that it’s the generalists who excel in today’s specialized world.
Generalists vs. Specialists
Epstein’s assertion may throw some of us for a loop. In recent years, we’ve heard from other authors that success comes from years of specialized work and practice. Psychology professor and author, K. Anders Ericsson, stated it takes very specific, deliberate (and often unpleasant) practice to reach peak performance in a field. Malcolm Gladwell expounded on Ericsson’s work in his book, Outliers, by discussing the “10,000-Hour Rule”—the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a world-class expert in any area.
It may seem that generalists and specialists are at odds with one another. Specialists focus intensely on one area; generalists float from skill to skill, learning and practicing a variety of things. However, they’re not in opposition to each other; they’re allies. The world certainly needs its specialists—its medical professionals, researchers, lawyers, engineers—but there’s a very real need for generalists too.
The Case For Generalists
Choosing a career can be a difficult endeavor. It may take years of jumping from one field to the next before a person finds their path. And that path may be to move from generalist to specialist, or it may be to remain a generalist.
In the workplace, you’ll often find specialists and generalists working side-by-side, producing great products and services. Think of the IT professional who works in a very specialized programming language, but prefers interacting with computers to humans. That specialist needs a generalist who understands enough about the programmer’s job to communicate with clients.
It’s difficult to think of a job that allows one to work in complete isolation, and we’d be making things difficult for ourselves if we only worked with other specialists, even if they’re specialists in other areas. Epstein writes “A diverse group of specialists cannot fully replace the contributions of broad individuals.”
Finding Your Path to Success
Generalists may often find their career paths later in life, having moved from one area to the next, and having faced multiple failures, re-routing their careers. However, Epstein points out that these failures and forks in the road are not wasted experiences. They tend to make us more flexible and creative, able to make connections that others might overlook. Generalists think more broadly, and this puts them in a position to thrive.
We’ve probably all experienced the benefits of a generalist approach, to some extent or another, and it’s a great reminder that everyone progresses and excels at different things, at different speeds, and that sometimes that excellence comes in the form of being a “jack of all trades.” Until next time, enjoy.
Gary Klaben is in our Glenview, IL office and serves our clients who are now located all over the country. He has over 30 years of experience and is the author of Changing the Conversation, Wealth of Everything and co-author of The Business Battlefield. Whether advising his clients, mentoring his team, or coaching entrepreneurs, he is always simplifying complexity and motivating others to take the next action that’s right for them.
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