The value of being a generalist in today's specialized workplace
Updated: Jul 31, 2019
Is it better to know a lot about a little or a little about a lot? That’s a question that sparks debate among many people, especially managers in the workplace. During my career in communications and marketing, I’ve always leaned toward hiring people who have skills in both of those areas so that they could easily plug into a variety of different situations as needed.
I do have to admit to some bias here. My career started out as a writer in corporate communications following a few years as a newspaper reporter. While in my first non-journalism role, I quickly added graphic design to my skill set and began doing more of that than the writing I was initially hired to do. After taking my first supervisory role I assumed responsibility for internal communications and PR. A bit farther down the road, I started getting into marketing and advertising. You can also add on a few years focusing on department operations, social media, digital marketing and B2B-focsed marketing.
All told, that’s nearly 20 years of dabbling in just about every corner of marketing and communications. I’ve always felt my broad experience was an asset as I could handle just about any need that came up. For instance, if I required talking points for something connected to a marketing plan, I could write them. If I needed to write some social posts or create Web content, I could do that. And If I needed to make something look pretty for a presentation, I could do it. If my boss needed me to be a spokesman or do a live media interview I could do it and not get myself or the company in any trouble.
Now, many times someone who is a true specialist in those areas could have done a better job than I might have done. However, my ability to get to 90% of their output – in most cases – saved me and the companies I worked for a lot of time and effort in certain situations. My broad experience also helped me understand what I need from my partners and how to judge what was ultimately delivered.
Reflecting on all of this, you might not be surprised when I tell you how excited I was when I discovered a recent book that validated some of my assumptions. Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, written by David Epstein, explores how being a generalist and not a specialist is so often beneficial to your personal development and society at large. Epstein argues that by focusing only one thing – be it in sports, rocket science or medicine – you only see problems through a very narrow lens. It’s only by widening your focus and experimenting that you being to see new solutions.
Here are a few quotes from Epstein’s book that really spoke to me:
“Modern work demands knowledge transfer: the ability to apply knowledge to new situations and different domains.”
“The outside view is deeply counterintuitive because it requires a decision maker to ignore unique surface features of the current project, on which they are expert, and instead look outside for structurally similar analogies. It requires a mindset switch from narrow to broad.”
“Facing uncertain environments and wicked problems, breadth of experience is invaluable.”
So the next time you are labeled a generalist, take it as a compliment!
A note on the quote and image at the top of this article:
A jack of all trades is a master of none. This saying got cut short and originally said: “A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one." Unlike what our modern version would lead you to believe, having multiple interests but not being an expert in anything could actually prove advantageous.