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The Specialization Myth: The Rise of the Generalists

career advice career coaching career management generalists job search specialized Jun 30, 2022

These days, specialization is all the rage, driven in part by the 10,000 hours myth and education’s push for STEM subjects. This has pushed ‘softer’ subjects to the wayside. Topics like language, leadership, and arts are de-emphasized because it is so hard to measure performance, and therefore progress. 


But that doesn’t mean that topics that easily fit the 10,000-hour rule or STEM subjects are the only things that matter.


If you’re an entrepreneur or a potential job seeker, take note. The heyday of specialism may already be waning. This is my ode to the generalist.


Strong CEOs are Usually Generalists

If you want to rise to the highest ranks in a company such as the CEO’s chair, generalization will prepare you better for that overseer role. Many CEOs climb up the organization in a particular silo, but that can be a distinct disadvantage when it comes to managing the rest of the organizational verticals. The CEO should be concerned with getting these verticals to work in concert. But how do you execute such coordination when you don’t know much about most of the verticals?



Specialization Can Hurt Entrepreneurs

Specialization can be a slippery slope for entrepreneurs, too. Yes, the big ideas that typify entrepreneurial innovators are often spawned by specialization. But running the enterprise that will execute those ideas requires a broader focus.


For many entrepreneurs, the biggest challenges come from those parts of the business they are least comfortable with. Often, that’s marketing and sales. Entrepreneurs that I coach often lack the knowledge of how these disciplines really work, and they certainly don’t have the experience. The unfortunate upshot is that they have a serious deficit in their business. Bumping up against this deficit repeatedly depletes their energy and even motivation.


The 10,000 Hour Myth

Specialization got a shot in the arm with the much-publicized idea that if you put 10,000 hours into a pursuit, you will achieve mastery. Ironically, this is an example of, well, over-generalizing: taking something that is true in one context and applying it blithely across non-comparable areas. 


The 10,000 hours prescription holds when an individual is practicing an activity that has clear goals and clear and immediate feedback. Such disciplines allow individuals to engage in deliberate practice so that they can overcome the steepest barriers to their performance.


More often jobs, hobbies, and educational subjects are what is called ‘wicked.’


Wicked Topics

In his book Range, David J. Epstein describes it like this: In wicked domains, the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both. In the most devilishly wicked learning environments, experience will reinforce the exact wrong lessons.


Kind Topics

The learning environments explored in the 10,000-hour myth tend to be ‘kind’ environments. These are the opposite of wicked. Results are obvious and easily measured. Feedback is immediate and unequivocal. The operating rules are well understood and readily available.


The 10,000-hour myth points to the exceptional achievements of performers like Tiger Woods. 


High-Achieving Generalizations

Generalists have risen to great heights, too—people like multi-sport athletes Roger Federer, Bo Jackson, and Tom Brady; leaders like Donald Trump (real estate), Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (comedy), Arnold Schwarzenegger (bodybuilding and acting), and even Hitler (art). Plus there are the likes of Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, astronaut Mae Jemison, Einstein (philosophy and music), Temple Grandin, Duke Ellington, Leonarda da Vinci, Madonna, and even fictional characters like Dr. House or Sherlock Holmes.



Benefits of Generalizing

When you are a generalist, you develop a better appreciation for how whatever you are doing fits into the greater whole, because you have personal experience with the details of that greater whole. 


I consider myself lucky to have a liberal arts background. I loved the way that I would see weird similarities in disparate content areas, like, say, West African Literature and the Civil Rights Movement. Or Psychology and Medieval History. Each subject somehow made the others more interesting. 


To give a more recent example, I’ve been reading a book about Steve Bannon and another book about Putin. Occasionally the authors speak of the same events, and the Bannon book features a fascinating Russian named Aleksandr Dugin who is supposed to have influence over Putin. Weirdly, however, the Putin biography makes no reference to Dugin. 


Somebody has something wrong. Generalizing lets you see links (or a lack of connection) where others can’t.


That’s why we love Sherlock Holmes so much. He can see things that others can’t because he knows a lot about a lot of things. Having Sherlock on your side is like having the whole cast of a modern-day crime show in your pocket.


Other admirable traits of the generalist include:

  • A penchant for experimentation and a tendency to sample before choosing a path
  • Embodying the coveted value of diversity
  • Being holistic
  • Seeing the big picture


Specialist Disadvantages

The specialist, on the other hand, while possessing well-publicized advantages, may also suffer from:

  • Tunnel vision
  • Vulnerability to automation
  • Dissatisfaction due to having their ladder up against the wrong wall (i.e. specializing too early)
  • Imbalance
  • Tendency toward burnout


Career Searching for Generalists

So what does the generalist/specialist argument have to say about career management? 


As you can imagine, I promote pursuing a diverse set of experiences in your career. This can, admittedly, pose a challenge when it comes to the job search. However, you can mitigate that through savvy searching.


If you hew toward the traditional job search, applying for jobs and letting algorithms evaluate you, generalizing will probably hurt you. You might not have sufficient time in job for the coveted experience that the algorithm is screening for. 


I don’t recommend that you search like that.


Instead, using higher-context approaches like networking and leveraging LinkedIn. In both cases, your candidacy will come with a story, a story that you can control. For example, if you are networking, you often hand your resume to a person whom you know. You can plant the story that you want them to convey when sharing your resume. Likewise, on LinkedIn there are plenty of places to sell yourself with a compelling narrative that shows the value of your diverse experiences. 


I predict that as the world grows more and more complex and globalized, as the kindest jobs increasingly get coopted by automation, the generalist’s skills at handling the wicked jobs will bring a renaissance to the power of generalizing.


Viva la renaissance man and woman!


Would you like to find out how to integrate your generalist inclinations into your career? I invite you to a free chat to learn how to do just that. Please visit my scheduler to set up your conversation:

I’m Dr. Kira Swanson and I’m a Life Coach for people who dread Monday. I work with corporate misfits and struggling entrepreneurs who feel unfulfilled in their work. Together, we tune into what they really want, find new perspectives, and summon the courage to take bold action. Whether it’s striking out on their own, flourishing in their own business, or thriving right where they are, I help my clients to Love Monday.

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