Can being a generalist turn you into a better specialist?
Keeping a broad range of interests and experimenting by changing course now and then is essential to finding your true passion
Recently, I was sitting in a meeting and one of my colleagues said to me: “I think you’re more of a generalist than a specialist.” At first, I wasn’t sure if I should be offended or if I should take it as a compliment, so ever since then, I’ve ventured down the rabbit hole, looking for answers to determine whether it is better to be a generalist or a specialist, so here we go…
The road to success is never a straight line
If we look at the idea of “success” it has traditionally focused on the need to excel in a particular discipline or field rather than having broad experience. As part of my quest to understand which path is best, I came across a book written by David Epstein titled: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World - the title alone had me hooked, so of course I had to give it a read.
Throughout the book, Epstein discusses the notion of generalism by arguing that to become a specialist, it’s best to spend time being a “jack of all trades, master of none" before you settle on a specialty. He believes that keeping a broad range of interests and experimenting by changing course now and then is essential to finding your true passion and the success that comes with it.
As a generalist, this struck a chord with me, so naturally, I was keen to learn more.
A swing and a miss
Epstein frames up this argument by using a very clever sporting analogy that perfectly set the scene. Here he discusses the success of two of our most iconic contemporary athletes - Tiger Woods and Roger Federer and how they each took a different approach to achieve their success. On one hand, Tiger Woods was specialising in golf from a very young age after his father first handed him a golf stick when he was just six months old. Within two months, he was already imitating a swing and by the age of two, he was featured on national television showcasing his ‘prodigal’ talent. Fast forward to the age of 21, and Tiger had already spent the majority of his life perfecting his skill and was now the number one golfer in the world - a fair achievement.
On the other hand, Roger Federer played a wide range of sports growing up - from soccer to rugby and even badminton - he had a love of sport and wanted to try everything before he settled onto one sport. What this meant though, was that in comparison to other up-and-coming players at the time, he delayed specialising in tennis until a lot later than most - but I think we can all agree that he turned out fine! So it begs the question - what is the right approach? Should you be a Tiger or a Roger?
Is variety the spice of life?
According to Epstein, if you look at it from a scientific perspective, it’s Roger’s approach that grants a better long-term outcome - which is no surprise considering he also happens to be my favourite athlete. The reason being is that success is more associated with having a variety of experiences that you can apply to any given situation. Now, don’t get me wrong Tiger is an incredible athlete and for him, specialising worked - but for the vast majority of us, we don’t find our passion at six months old, so we need to trial things first.
According to the findings, breadth of training predicts breadth of experience, therefore the more varied your training is, the better able you’ll be to apply your skills flexibly to situations you haven’t seen before. i.e. - you’re trying to learn how to match a strategy to a type of problem instead of just learning how to do repetitive patterns (which is prominent in most specialities).
Going back to the sporting analogy one last time, sports scientists have tracked the development of athletes for years and have found they have a so-called “sampling period”, where they gain broad skills to scaffold later learnings. It is during this period that they learn about their interests and their abilities, while systematically delaying specialising until later than their peers (i.e. Roger), who often plateau at lower levels. This makes sense considering Fed is still smashing out Grand Slam wins in his late 30s.
So, is one better than the other?
Based on the findings, I would argue that in many cases, it’s better to be a generalist and gather a broad range of skills and experiences first before you settle on a particular specialty. They say it can take upward of 10,000 hours to generalise before you move into a speciality - but when you do, the skills you will have learned during that time will set you up for life. So why not spend the time exploring your options and finding out what makes you tick before making the call?
Overall, despite my best efforts to determine which approach is best - it turns out that they are both as important as the other and you should never treat them in isolation. After all, generalising can help you find your true calling so you can go on to specialise in that. This is a much better outcome in my opinion!
Words by Senior Brand Leader, Rebekah Allison