3 Reasons to Be a Generalist

If you want to succeed, you have to be a specialist. That’s a common belief, isn’t it? 

After all, if you’re calling someone to fix your toilet, you’d want a professional plumber. You don’t want a plumber/novelist. You want to make sure this guy knows what he’s doing and not simply using your bathroom to research his next urban fantasy

Certain roles demand specialization like surgeons, pilots, and plumbers. However, most people can benefit from having a breadth of knowledge, acquiring more skills, gaining more experiences, embracing detours, and experimenting with their craft. 

We used to believe that in order to succeed, you must get ahead and stay ahead. Commit and never waver. But I have three reasons why you should avoid the traditional trap and expand your range so that you can be a high-functioning generalist.

1. Skill Stacking: 80% Is Already Really Good

If you were an ambitious Asian kid like I was, at some point in your life, someone would’ve pressured you to be the best. Number 1. The gold medalist. A+ student. The undisputed champion. 

The likelihood of me or anyone reaching that pinnacle is very slim. There are over 7 billion people in the world, so it’s going to be hard to reach the top and have a perfect 100%. However, we don’t need to be the best. We only need to be proficient. We can be 80% and still be better than the majority of people. Being 80% means that you’re capable of accomplishing your task and you are completing it way above average. To rise beyond 80%, other factors need to come into play such as genetics. That’s why even under the best conditions, specialization can only get you so far. 

I love the concept of skill stacking, which is the idea of combining all your skills together so that even if you’re not a 100% performer in any of them, collectively they still give you an advantage over a majority of the world. 

Let’s say you are 80% good at writing, 80% good at marketing, and 80% good at photography. You become so much more effective in starting your business, a process that requires many skills, than someone who is 100% good at writing and 0% good at the other skills. 

For more on skill stacking, check out How to Be Better at Almost Everything by Pat Flynn (Amazon)

2. Breadth of Knowledge: You Can Solve Bigger Problems

When we’re focused on our own work, in our own team, in our own department, we learn to solve one problem and one problem well. It’s when that problem changes that traditional methods and tools become ineffective. Failing to be agile results in wasted efforts. These siloed operations are flaws in the system, preventing innovations from taking place.

If you only consume information from a narrow field, you shrink your world. When you’re exposed to fewer experiences and ideas, you’re less likely to make new connections. These connections are potential solutions to new problems and creative ways to use old tools. 

It’s true that learning a breadth of knowledge can be inefficient. This is often the case in trades and science, where specialization is expected. However, by gaining a range of skills and broad knowledge, we can solve bigger problems and be nimble. In the modern world, a sudden disruption can make your specialized skill obsolete and leave you completely lost. It’s good to go deep into a subject, but be sure to go wide as well, just in case.  

To learn more about how being a generalist can help solve bigger problems, check out Range by David Epstein (Amazon)

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

3. Find Your Unique Style

Creativity is all about making connections. And connections come from experiences. The more people, environments, genres, and artforms you expose yourself to the more connections you’ll make. 

There’s too much out there these days and replicating a classic will only get you so far. However, it’s a good place to start. In order to stand out, you need to bring something new to the table. The best way to do that is to understand what has worked in the past and mix it up in a novel way. As you replicate these established styles, you’ll discover your own. 

I love the idea of “swimming upstream” and discovering a family tree of your influences. Try this exercise: Find one thinker — a creator, writer, artist, role model — you admire and whose works you want to emulate. Study that person. Become a specialist and go deep. Then find three people that that thinker admires and follow them as well. Learn everything you can. Go deeper still. Once you’re done with that tree, begin again with another thinker, and go through that same process of swimming upstream. See how each thinker is a culmination of many others. See how one influences another. 

I love the saying: if you steal from one artist you’re plagiarising, but if you steal from many, you’re developing your own style. 

For more on developing your own style and stealing like an artist, check out Steal Like An Artist by Austen Kleon (Amazon)

More than ever, being a generalist can be a key to your success. Organizations are depending on team members that can communicate between departments. Generalists are counted on to call out discrepancies and make connections that might not be visible to specialists who are too deep into their field to notice. 

So forget about the old misconceptions, traditions, and pressures of picking a lane and staying rigidly within it. It’s time to learn, it’s time to explore, and it’s time to do more. 

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