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Monday
Feb012016

Specialist or Generalist?

Today's post is more philosophical in tone than the majority that I write, inspired both by my reading the latest issue of Wesleyan, the alumni magazine of my alma mater, and a conversation I had with my godson. It delves a bit into why I enjoy debating with a large number of my clients their belief that they need to become experts in a particular field, and attempting to convince them that their fear of being "generalists" might be misplaced.
 
In the article Bill Blakemore, Wesleyan class of 1965, reminisced about the controversial establishment at Wesleyan in the late 1960s of three multidisciplinary colleges that sought to emphasize broadening, rather than deepening, student knowledge. Most faculty members strongly resisted these colleges (College of Arts, College of Letters, and College of Social Sciences, each of which required enrolled students to take a wide variety of courses). Faculty feared that these colleges were "....way too general or undisciplined, and felt safer with the familiar categories with which long established curricula divided up the world." They were overruled, and the colleges succeeded so well that there are now four more.
 
Referring to the traditional educational path of selecting a major, Wesleyan President Michael Roth states that today "Resisting the social and economic pressures on students to specialize too narrowly too soon is an idea whose time has come."
 
In my view, resisting those pressures on adults is also an idea whose time has come. Why now? Because technology is creating change at such a pace that definitions of how things should get done are becoming more and more rapidly outdated.
 
That's where the conversation with my godson comes in. He works in the burgeoning field of Virtual Reality (VR). He told me that he will be going to the Sundance Festival this weekend to demonstrate a hugely expensive new VR camera but while there will look to acquire a dozen simpler cameras that cost 1/200 as much so as to be able to distribute them to a variety of creative types and see what they come up with......because he has observed that a reliance on a deep knowledge of filmmaking, of camera work, of cinematography, limits the potential uses of this exciting new technology. 
 
It's analogous to the first years of television, when the new medium broadcast what were essentially radio programs with pictures because the TV people were so steeped in what made for good radio that they were unable to see broader opportunities.
 
The process of creativity, of creating new theories, products, technologies, ideas, and methods, not to mention actual works of art, involves connecting previously unconnected information. "Generalists" (which among my clients usually means people who have worked in several different fields, or held different positions within the same field) have an advantage over specialists in this regard, precisely because of the breadth of their experience. As one specializes the range and breadth of one's knowledge and experience narrows as it deepens. 
 
Now, you may think "it makes sense that college students be generalists because they're too inexperienced to make wise career choices, but it's different for mature adults." For many adults, yes, it may well be different. But in a fast-changing world reinvention become increasingly necessary, and the deeper one is immersed in a particular field the harder it is to successfully reinvent.
Noted author Daniel Pink writes, in his book "To Sell is Human,": "A world of flat organizations and tumultuous business conditions - and that's our world - punishes fixed skills and prizes elastic ones. What an individual does day to day on the job now must stretch across functional boundaries. Designers analyze. Analysts design. Marketers create. Creators market. And when the next technologies emerge and current business models collapse, those skills will need to stretch again in different directions."
 
Of course the line between "specialist" and "generalist" is a blurry one, and I am certainly NOT suggesting that someone should avoid specializing. Not at all. As a general rule specialization is a far more predictable route to career success than is generalization. Positions in career specialties are certainly far more numerous. But specialists also usually have more competition. If you are a hardworking and talents "generalist" there may be opportunities that your very lack of specialization opens for you. So keep an open mind to the title question.

 

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