"What do you want to be when you grow up?". That is a question that everyone would frequently hear as they grow up. Most people struggle to find an answer early on in their lives and can quickly answer it as they grow up. However, for me, the exact opposite happens to be the case. For centuries most humans have long believed that specialization is the only key to success, however as I profoundly reflect on the status quo and lock myself out from the echo chamber of society, I have found that this cannot be further from the truth. From the renaissance age to the present, we have seen a lot of widely successful generalists: Shakespeare, Elon Musk, etc. These generalists, with their vast array of skills and abilities, offer something to the table that specialists could not even imagine in the first place. Their diverse sets of expertise have allowed them to thrive, especially in a fast-changing world like the one we are living at right now. Among the sea of specialists, generalists can achieve great success, and their presence has allowed humanity to progress further.
For a long time, parents have always told their children that being a specialist is the safest bet for a bright future. During an interview I conducted with several parents of children who are currently attending college, I have found that all of them agree that becoming a specialist is necessary to survive in the current competitive job landscape. This is not without any reason. For many years, specialization has been highly rewarded, and people with highly valued skills by businesses have enjoyed great success in society. Having been raised in an Asian family, a shared joke that we have always had is that all Asian parents want their children to become either a doctor, a lawyer, or a banker, which just so happens to be three highly specialized occupations that have a lot of potentials to be able to make great fortune. On the opposite end of the table, there seems to be a massive negative stigma on people that tries to become a generalist. When asked to share their thoughts about what if their children strive to become a generalist and pick up an assortment of skills, one of the parents said that "it is how you end up homeless". This grim portrayal of generalists has haunted the society, and it has helped humanity become a hyper-specialized society. Most children take their parents’ advice to specialize at face value, however, some of them might take it with a grain of salt and truly consider the path of being a generalist. The question is, what happen to those who are brave enough to take an adventure down that path?
Despite the negative stigma that most people have against them, generalists have found themselves to be the most well-positioned in our current ever-changing modern society. With innovations happening at breakneck speed, it is impossible to predict how the job landscape will look like in a few years. A lot of people have had their jobs made redundant by technology, and there will be potentially a lot more that will be automated away by artificial intelligence. What happens if the job you have spent so much time developing for many years ends up becoming redundant because a computer has finally been able to do it faster and cheaper for the company? This is the primary dilemma that specialists face, but generalists do not suffer as much from. Shane Parrish, the writer of Farnam Street, the renowned blog that took Silicon Valley and Wall Street by storm, explained this phenomenon the best:
“Generalists often possess transferable skills, allowing them to be flexible with their career choices and adapt to a changing world. They can do a different type of work and adapt to changes in the workplace. Gatekeepers tend to cause fewer problems for generalists than for specialists” (Parrish, “The Generalized Specialist: How Shakespeare, Da Vinci, and Kepler Excelled”).
The versatile nature of generalists has made them more resilient than their specialists counterpart during the time of massive changes. When one is unsure about where the future is headings, sometimes the safest bet is to train in a variety of practical skills that can be applicable in a wide range of industries, making you prepared for whatever the future has to offer.
Beyond their resiliency during the time of massive changes, generalists are more efficient than their specialist counterparts in roles that demand quick iteration cycles and experimentations. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith, who is recognized as the father of the economic studies, believes that a proper division of labor is the key to increase productivity in society. He used the analogy of the pin factory that can perform better by distinct tasks to its workers: "One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cut it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations" (Smith 6). As time goes on, we learn that this clear-cut division of labor and specialization has worked exceptionally well in fields where the procedure has been documented, and all the business needs to do is replicate the process over and over to continue generating value. However, we have also discovered that this principle does not work well in teams where they strive to unravel new processes through many iterations and trial-and-error. Eric Colson, Chief Algorithms Officer at Stich Fix and the former VP of Data Science and Engineering at Netflix, believes that the relatively new field of data science to be one of the examples of a work that benefits a lot from having generalists in the team. At an article on Harvard Business Review, Colson pointed out this striking difference in requirement between jobs that resemble an assembly line and a data science team:
The goal of assembly lines is execution … The role of the workers is then to execute those requirements as efficiently as possible. But the goal of data science is not to execute. Rather, the goal is to learn and develop profound new business capabilities. (Colson, “Why Data Science Teams Need Generalists, Not Specialists”)
Due to the different objective that the data science team has, Colson believes that a hyperspecialized data science team will end up being suboptimal. He pointed out that specialization hinders their organizational goals because it “increases coordination cost”, “exacerbates wait time”, and “limit learning by rewarding people to stay in their lane” (Colson, “Why Data Science Teams Need Generalists, Not Specialists”). While one might argue that the generalists are not as good as the specialists in a particular task, Colson believes that it is perfectly fine: "Our generalist may not be as adept as a specialist in any one function. But we are not seeking functional excellence or small incremental improvements. Rather, we seek to learn and discover all-new business capabilities with step-change impact” (Colson, “Why Data Science Teams Need Generalists, Not Specialists”). When innovation is the name of the business, the ability to move fast has become a competitive edge, and this is where Adam Smith's division of labor theory fails, and the modern generalists take over. Data science teams and many other innovative teams have become a great proving ground for these generalists, and it has been a place where generalists can truly shine in the sea of specialists.
Despite the many benefits of being a generalist in a corporate to entrepreneurship settings, there is a common pushback that argues that generalists are easily replaceable by a team of specialists with a diverse set of skills. Intuitively, this statement might seem correct; however, if we take a closer look, it does not seem to be that simple. David Epstein, the author of Range, wrote in his book that a "Research on creators in domains from technology innovation to comic books shows that a diverse group of specialists cannot fully replace the contribution of individuals" (Epstein 290). Contrary to popular belief, we cannot evaluate a generalist's skills in a vacuum and separate each of their abilities from the other. They are exceptional not merely because they have multiple skills that function independently, but rather because they can synthesize their multidisciplinary knowledge and apply it to their work. While a company might be able to substitute the generalist's ability to execute on a specific task that requires a particular skill, the company cannot replace the innovation and out of the box thinking that comes from the generalist's broad spectrum of knowledge.
In this modern age, both specialists and generalists coexist to make the world a better place. Generalists have become a precious asset that many companies have started to realize due to the many coverages that it has recently received. Let it be through David Epstein's best-selling book, Range, or through the many public figures that have discussed it like Naval Ravikant, a Silicon Valley icon and CEO of AngelList. Generalists have become an unprecedented dark horse in the work field that can come up with innovation and ideas that were previously left untapped. Specialists, as always, will always have a place in society. Their existence will always be essential to the community as they push the boundary of their fields and make things possible. If the world is a ship, the generalists are the navigator, and the specialists are the helmsman; one cannot exist without the other.
Colson, Eric. “Why Data Science Teams Need Generalists, Not Specialists.” Harvard Business Review, 12 Mar. 2019, hbr.org/2019/03/why-data-science-teams-need-generalists-not-specialists.
Epstein, David. Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. Riverhead Books, 2019.
Parrish, Shane. “The Generalized Specialist: How Shakespeare, Da Vinci, and Kepler Excelled.”Farnam Street, 1 Mar. 2020, fs.blog/2017/11/generalized-specialist/.
Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. University of Chicago Press, 1976.