Being a Generalist vs a Specialist

There seems to be a growing desire for generalists, again. The pendulum swings between the want for specialists and generalists every few decades.

I wonder if it coincides with the lifetimes of the preceding generations of people, going in and out of the workplace. Meaning, let’s say something in particular needs to be developed or achieved in a society, as a whole. So, companies go out and hire bunches of men and women who know how to a particular thing and who can do it well. Then, after that series of problems is solved, the need for specializations isn’t as big anymore.

Instead, what’s hotly desired is people who can see the big picture, who can bring together opposites, who can extrapolate, and who can interconnect things, people, and resources that seem completely unrelated.

Enter, the Generalists. In some ways, we’re an odd bunch. We may not always be able to go deep into every topic, but we sure do like seeing how others’ years of expertise and experience can be used to help people in need.

Generalists and specialists. Each have a place, and each have a purpose. Which one are you? What are your unique desires and interests that can be crafted into benefiting the world? Do you love the details or the broad view? Both are needed, yet each of us tend to better relate to one or the other.

In quilt making, specialists find a color or pattern they like and use the same one over and over. A generalist is a ragpicker who can take even the most disparaging bits and pieces of cloth and sew them into a quilt, equal in beauty to that of their specialist counterparts.

Elmer Gates, Nathan Myhrvold, Lowell Wood, and Donald Sutherland. Three inventors and an actor. Each were/are idea men. Each were/are generalists, in their own way. Gates would sit in a dimly lit room for hours, picking up on bits and pieces of ideas that would flash in his mind, creating a new invention before his very eyes.

Equally adept at connecting differing pieces into a cogent whole, Myhrvold and Wood have gone on to invent all sorts of things. Yet, they would both tell you that they see themselves at generalists and not as specialty-minded folks.

Sutherland, with his 150+ films, picked his roles and acting parts not based on trying to progress up a career ladder, but based on what the character’s lines spoke to him. As a result, he wound up playing all sorts characters and roles. And, he loved every bit of it.

There’s an American living in Ecuador whose blog I’ve followed off and on, over the years. I’ve followed Dom Buonamici’s work, in part, because he changes out his occupation title at the end of his emails, from time to time. Sometimes he’s a “business investor”, sometimes a “real estate developer”, sometimes a “beachside hut dweller”, and other times a “international traveler”. Each self-proclaimed title speaks to the interest that he has or is developing at the time. I always look forward to how he’s going to sign off his next message or post.

People talk about starting over, rebranding themselves, or figuring out a different way to do things. Each of those comes with a willingness and a desire to make a change. It seems like it would be easier for generalists to change than specialists, because they can see how everything is connected to everything else. And, they probably get bored a whole faster than other people do.

Being a generalist, I’m excited that the world seems to be interested, again, in what “my kind” has to offer. For so many years, it seemed like you had to have a specific degree from a particular type of school, or nobody in the hiring realm was going to give you a chance to prove what you had to offer.

But, “times are a’changin’,” as my Dad says.

Still, not to worry if you’re specialist in something. You’re in vogue…for now. Just kidding! You’ll always be needed, as well.

It’s just fascinating how interest in a particular type of mindset, ability, or perspective comes and goes over the years.

Have a great week!

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