What does it mean to be a generalist? What do they do? Do they do things?
With my story, I will try to shed some light on the idea of “Generalism” and why it may not be that bad.
They Can Do Anything a Little But Can’t Do Anything Right
It’s this moment. I’m meeting my girlfriend’s parents for the first time. And there it is. The question I knew they would ask:
So Alex, what do you do for a living?
Well, I work as an IT consultant.
Cool. So what exactly do you do?
I can’t blame them for asking. In the past people have asked me:
IT? That’s awesome! So you help people when they have a problem with their computer?
No. That’s not it.
Others will inquire:
Are you a coder? Like the tech people in Silicon Valley? What have you built?
Closer, but still wrong. I have built nothing. Except for a website with the help of a pre-built template. No rocket science.
So, what do I do? Tricky question.
Generally, it’s the same as everybody: You get a situation. A problem that needs fixing, a question that needs answering, a product that needs to be built. Just that in my case it’s always, of course, somehow related to IT and Data. As the projects vary, so do my tasks. These may include high-level project management or hands-on product management and user experience design as well as organizing and planning teams, approaches, events, and whatever needs organizing. And, of course, facilitation work including stakeholder management and building bridges between people.
Here’s the apparent problem:
I know a little bit about everything but nothing in-depth.
Sure, I have done some coding. But nobody would hire me as a coder.
I know about user experience. But user experience people know much more.
I have done business development. But only to a minor degree.
I have lead design thinking workshops. Well, a couple of them. Small ones. Design thinking experts would smile.
I have done some data science and machine learning. But just superficially. When it comes to the details, I’m usually lost. And that’s true for everything.
In times, of ever-emerging tech-companies, hunting for specialized talents, attracting them with big salaries, and a great work-life, this results in a feeling of not knowing enough. Of not fitting in and not being accepted by the experts. You’re not usually the go-to-guy when an opinion on a particular topic is needed. There is always someone that knows more.
And then, working in an IT company, I noticed how this is being used against me in salary negotiations. When other specialized colleagues talk with ease about their 5+ years of experience in front-end development using technology X and Y. It’s clear what they can and cannot do. Not much arguing needed.
And what do I say? A negotiation could look like this:
Me: “I have led projects A and B to a successful outcome”
Them: Right. But that was a team effort, wasn’t it? You wouldn’t have been able to do it without the experts, right?
Me: Right. It’s always the team. It wouldn’t have been possible to do it without me managing it.
Them: I see. So, what did you do?
…and it goes on like that.
That’s when I get these thoughts. Wouldn’t it be nice to be an expert? Why don’t I just start coding? Hell, I could even work from home. Or from a beach in Hawaii.
To be honest, I had chosen my way long before. More unknowingly than knowingly. It is just the result of being broadly interested in many topics. Also, the thought of chaining myself to a specialty actively ignoring everything else bothers me. A lot.
Anyway, my discouragement surged and I increasingly disliked being a generalist.
I started to take software engineering courses. They were great. I enjoyed myself. Very insightful, too. But I found that it’s not what I want to be doing 40+ hours a week.
So I had another look at what I had been doing and dug deeper into the pros of being a generalist.
Why I Have Learned to Embrace Being a Generalist
We’re great problem solvers. As mentioned, every job involves problem-solving. As generalists, we do this in various fields and with different groups of people. Therefore, we learn to manage complexity and to find the right questions to ask. We learn methodologies such as Design Thinking, Systems Thinking, and Model Thinking that provide us with a framework for approaching new problems more productively.
As a generalist, our tasks are very diverse by nature. We are curious and learn to quickly adapt to new situations and challenges. We tend to be able to transfer skills and knowledge acquired in one field to another and are good at handling several tasks at the same time.
Effective communication is one of our most important functions. We build bridges between people, speaking different technical languages. We moderate discussions and workshops. With our broad backgrounds, we contribute by providing new perspectives and encourage people to think outside the box. In a group of specialists, we can help to spark creativity.
4. Decision Making
As generalists, we are better when it comes to making large decisions that are impacted by a variety of fields. This is because of two reasons: First, our broader understanding of many topics helps us assess complex situations. Second, generalists seem to be better at steering the uncertainty of the future. This was indicated by a study conducted by professor Philip Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania. It found that generalists are more successful when it comes to making predictions.
5. The Bigger Picture
We’ve become a society that’s data-rich and meaning poor. A rise in specialists in all areas — science, math, history, psychology — has left us with tremendous content but how valuable is that knowledge without context? — Carter Phipps
As generalists, we see the work within different fields to the left and the right. This allows us to understand the bigger picture. Therefore, according to Carter Phipps author of the Evolutionaries (2012), context can only be provided by generalists because their breadth of knowledge can serve as a link between the scientific breakthroughs and the rest of the world.
6. The Future of Work
In the future, the aforementioned strengths will be even more valuable. This is due to two main reasons:
Firstly, the world is becoming increasingly interconnected and complex. New technologies evolve and customers’ requirements change at an increasingly fast pace. Therefore, our organizations will have to change. This will require us to adapt flexibly to new topics, tasks, and teams.
Secondly, according to professor Jutta Rump as published in the German Manager Magazin, employees’ career paths will become more fragmented, which is enabled by increasingly flat hierarchies. Staying in one company climbing up the corporate ladder is becoming a rarity. Instead, people switch between jobs and responsibilities. Many like to more than one job at the time and some may even take a step down the corporate ladder to have more time for their personal life. This confronts companies with the challenge of a highly dynamic workforce. Generalists may become key in filling in voids.
Not having expert knowledge in a chosen field may sometimes feel insufficient and overwhelming. Especially today, with so much emphasis on the hunt for the best tech-talents. However, the world needs both, specialists and generalists. Being a generalist has its pros. Possibly in the future where change occurs even more rapidly and knowledge is quickly outdated, generalists will be able to benefit from their strengths even more.
Learn more about the Context of Personal Development in a digital world.