Early in life, we are encouraged to choose a definite path. First, a college major. Later, we will select a specific career. The thinking is simple enough: identify an area of focus, dig into the details, and acquire domain expertise in an attempt to become a specialist. This outlook places the expert at the top of the business hierarchy, where mastery of one skill set or job function rules the day.
But, is this approach still valid in today’s ever-changing workplace?
According to University of Pennsylvania Professor Phillip Tetlock the answer is no.
A Study of Specialists
Tetlock set out to determine who was better adept at making accurate predictions; experts or non-experts. In a study of 248 professionals over 20 years Tetlock found that the non-experts, or generalists, were best at making reliable forecasts. Tetlock said, generalists “who know many things” are able to “draw from an eclectic array or traditions and accept ambiguity and contradictions”. On the other hand, single-minded experts are unable to make predictions about variables they are unfamiliar with. The experts are hyper-focused, leaving them with a lack of context.
Thrive Where Others Falter
The trouble with specializing is the narrow scope of knowledge that results. Experts tend to possess a rigid perspective based on a formula, equation, or structure that creates a false sense of certainty. When conditions are perfect the expert thrives. But, when blown off course the expert is unable to navigate in open waters. In contrast, the agile, generalizing counterpart can weather rough waters.
Generalist is Another Word for Entrepreneur
Becoming a know it all is the best bet for any would be entrepreneur. Ideally, a concept that began as a dream can be contained in a business plan and eventually developed into a mission. Executing that plan, and realizing the vision, requires a breadth of talents that exceeds the scope of a specialist.
To succeed as a start-up or business owner you will have to manage people, relationships, and money. You must be part hacker and part hustler, a workhorse and a social butterfly. At times, you’re day-to-day will feel like a real life version of Trivial Pursuit; one that cannot be mastered, but must managed and manipulated to meet your needs.
The only option is specialize in being a generalist. Here’s how:
Break out of the predictable routine you’ve been living in. You don’t need another class, curriculum, or credential. What you need is to interact and insert yourself into new situations. New people and experiences will connect you with better opportunities and ideas.
It’s not always who you know, sometimes it’s who knows you that matters most. With that in mind become a connector and befriend other connectors. Connectors are the missing link that exists between people and ideas. They might not have all of the answers, but they know someone who does.
Set-up entrepreneur dates to master-mind with other thought-leaders. Build genuine and authentic relationships with new acquaintances. Then, add these people to your personal rolodex. They might not be able to help you in the immediate future or ever. But, chances are good that you’ll be able to connect them to someone in need of their talents.
If you remain open to new people and experience you will be able to expand your knowledgebase. You’ll broaden your perspective and diversify your outlook. As a result, you’ll add context to your thoughts and refine your opinions, becoming well versed in art of generalizing.
Is it better to be generalist or the specialist? Is expert status your goal or would you rather be a utility player?