“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” ~Unknown

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What Good Are Generalists, Anyway?

The World has seen a steady increase in specialization over the past century. This is no secret. In fact, it has become much more 'normal' to specialize than to be a generalist in the modern world.  But, we wouldn't need to stretch too far back in history to find a time when almost all people were generalists to some degree. Not very long ago, most people needed to know how to build their own homes, to grow their own food, to hunt, to determine the mechanics of and build a windmill, to assess the advantageous biological traits that would pass on through breeding. Not long ago, reading literature and playing music were nearly the only form of everyday entertainment, and writing letters was nearly the only form of long-distance communication.

Of course, cars and airplanes had not been invented, much less computers, and plenty of people were dying every day from Small Pox, among other horrible diseases.  And, there was no such thing as Super String Theory. So, obviously we have made some progress, albeit in which direction remains to be seen.

Is hyper-specialization truly the future of humanity? Are we destined to become further and further specialized? Will we need to have 8 physicians present in the exam room, each reporting on something specific to inform us of the totality of our ailments? Perhaps it is so. And, perhaps it ought to be so. There are certainly many positive things that could be said about specialization.

None come to mind at the moment, but I'm sure there's something.

However, what say you for the generalist?  What say you for the man who refuses to specialize - for the man who cannot specialize? What say you for the man to whom specialization is anathema? Is the generalist a Quagga, never able to decide whether to be a horse or a zebra, bound for extinction? What good is a generalist, anyway?

The Creative Innovator 

Possibly the greatest trait of the generalist is his ability to innovate. Never was this truer than in the persona of Leonardo da Vinci, but there are many, many other examples of creatively innovative generalists throughout time (I welcome your favorite examples in the comments). A generalist draws upon all of his varied life experiences in every daily task.  When he is presented with a problem, it is likely that he has had some alternative life experience from which to draw in order to solve it creatively.  This is the proverbial 'thinking outside the box' paradigm. A generalist, by his very nature, seeks out multiple and varied life experiences in order to remain contented, and these varied experiences supply him with the ideas to cross-pollinate solutions into other areas of his life. I would submit, in fact, that most innovations spring from a generalistic well.  In many cases the generalist is probably the instigator of the innovative idea, whereupon the specialist is either contracted to hone, elaborate upon, or simply steals the idea outright.

It is almost necessary that a new, creative innovation originate with a generalist, or at least a generalistic thought. The reason it hadn't been thought of before is precisely because it took the unique life experience of that particular creative individual to bring his experience to bear upon the problem. It is the generalist who connects his past experiences in a way that no specialist could when the statement "I wish there was something that would make this be this way," or "I wish there was something that would do this" is issued. This statement, whether issued by the generalist within himself or by another person, sets a chain-reaction of memory and creativity alight within the generalist's mind. He connects the dots. He has used, seen, or done something similar in the past that just might work with a little modification in this situation. Completely unrelated to the original application perhaps, but definitely applicable with some minor, situation-specific modifications.

It is not absolutely necessary for the generalistic idea to spring from a generalist, mind you. Even the most specialized specialist will have life experience to create a few connecting dots here or there. However, a true generalist will necessarily have many more dots to connect, thereby increasing the chances that the innovation originates with him.    

The Empathetic Humanist

Because of the Generalist's wandering and multipathic nature, he has created for himself the opportunity to 'see how the other half live', whomever they might be. The generalist has therefore developed an uncanny ability to 'fit in' among several different types of crowds. He can apply his life experience with individuals from all walks of life to any situation. He is chameleonic without straying into conformity. He can choose his words carefully based upon his experiential knowledge of how this particular audience will hear those words. More than that, he has actually been this audience at one point or another, which is why he has this ability. He has 'walked a mile in their shoes', so the saying goes, and is therefore able to relate empathetically to them.

Generalists have this ability to empathize where specialists do not because of their varied life experience with a multitude of people, places and things. Specialists tend to congregate amongst their own, and therefore have a much narrower world view. It can almost not be helped. These are the experiences that each has known throughout his life, but the Generalist has known many different and varied types of people, places, and things, where the Specialist has known relatively few by comparison. It could be said that the Specialist will end up knowing a certain type of person very well, but it is then also true that the Generalist will know people well.

This trait is useful in that generalists tend to be very good communicators. They tend to understand which words will play well with certain people and which words will not.  They also tend to know how to say things in a way that most people will understand. They can take in and understand a specialist's communication and break it down in a way that will be understood by many dissonantly-specialized people, as well as the common lay-person, which is becoming more and more important as our world becomes ever more hyper-specialized. Sticking within the communications realm, generalists tend to make very good marketers and/or salesmen because of their ability to understand how several different types of people will react to stimuli, an obvious benefit when one is trying to convince someone to buy or do something.

Generalists tend to know people well, and are therefore better than most at managing them. A generalist tends to understand what will motivate and/or dissuade a person from doing or not doing something.  Again, the Generalist has probably been in the same or very similar situation to the one in which the person they are managing is, and is therefore able to call upon his life experience to understand how that person will be motivated.  Because of this, a generalist even has the ability to be persuasive to the point of manipulation, albeit in a generally empathetic way. This tends to leave generalists in a good position to become Human Resource Managers or Behavioral Therapists, for instance.

The Climber

Generalists are not very good at specialization; it is actually repulsive to them in varying degrees. This is in some way what motivates the generalist more than most to 'climb the ladder'. There is only so much time that a generalist will tolerate the mail room, literally or figuratively. He will either move on or move up. Very often he will be moving up, rung by rung, until at some point he finds that he is at the top of the ladder.  The view can tend to be nice up there for a generalist.  CEOs and Executive Managers of companies big and small are, by necessity, generalists. They do not have time to specialize in every aspect of the organization in order to be effective, even if that was their desire.

However, most generalists have a great ability to see 'the big picture' more effectively than most, which suits them well in this position. Generalists can piece together many disparate parts of the puzzle in order to make decisions about the broad directions that need to be taken in any given organization. Although the generalist will necessarily not be a specialist in every aspect of the company or organization's operations, he will be somewhat proficient in many of the areas for which he is being briefed on a regular basis, allowing him to generally know enough of everything to make the good decisions that need to be made in a changing environment.

It should be noted that this trait is not only a useful one in the business world, but also with respect to leadership in general. Generalists, for instance, can make fantastic social and military leaders because of their ability to connect the dots and see the big picture that others might not see.

The Trustworthy Sage

History has always valued the 'Wise Man'. This is the guy you go to when you just need some general advice about something, and he usually has a pretty intelligent answer to offer. He is an educated man, but more than that he is a man with varied and useful experience. Even when he doesn't necessarily know the answer to the question, he can surmise a relatively good guess from his other varied and useful life experiences, as well as his education. And, if all else fails, he can at least suggest where to find the answer if he does not have it. This is a guy you can trust because he generally steers you in the right direction.

In many ways, the World needs more of these men.  Trust is a disappearing commodity, it seems, in our time, along with wisdom (sadly). Perhaps that seemed true in every time, and perhaps that is a cynical thought, but in a world where many of the 'educated' people know very little about anyone else, and where plenty of the education they do have is coming from sources such as 'reality' TV, it is hard not to become cynical. Think about men such as Thomas Jefferson and/or Benjamin Franklin. Where are these men in our time, and can their tempered voices rise above the cacophonous buzz of argumentative specialist 'experts' even if they do still exist?

It seems people are listening to and taking advice more and more from the specialists. This is the kind of thing that leads one to the knowledge that eating salmon will both cure your heart disease and cancer, as well as kill you horrifically via mercury poisoning, all in the same week. Perhaps we should have just been listening to the wise man all along who said: "anything in moderation."

So, that's about everything that generalists are good for (not really; there's much more).

Here's one last thing, though: Generalists are much more fun than specialists. It's been scientifically proven.

Well, there you go, you've wasted another good fifteen minutes of your life when you could have been fishing or playing Angry Birds or something.

As usual, please don't hesitate to add to this with your comments, and if you find any of this interesting, don't hesitate to subscribe and/or spread it around.

And, just in case anyone was going to comment on this, let me save you the trouble: yes, you can substitute 'she' for 'he' in any of the above post.


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  3. I'll leave a comment because such a good post deserves a compliment. There's a lot of insight here.