Generalist, multi-disciplinarian, Renaissance lady

I am a generalist. A multi-disciplinarian. What maybe used to be called a jack-of-all-trades. I have a little bit of skill in a lot of areas, and I’m a quick study. I can pick up enough of what you know to have a meaningful working relationship. At one time, I thought I wanted to be a specialist, but I realized what that would involve — there is a significant life trade-off when you specialize.

Malcolm Gladwell writes about the 10,000 hour rule in his book Outliers — the idea that you have to practice something for that much time to achieve mastery. And to work for 10,000 hours at something means you can’t spend those hours on any of the other interests in your life. You cannot indulge your curiosity in the same way a generalist can.

One of the trade-offs of being a multi-disciplinarian is that it’s easy (and dangerous) to see yourself as a failure for not staying in one track. There is of course no inherent failing in moving through multiple careers and projects — it’s what you’d very naturally do when you’re a person who is fascinated by the world and many aspects of it call to you.

But the working world at large really appreciates the idea of a specialist and doesn’t quite know what to make of a generalist. You see job postings for “mechanical engineer” or “nurse” and if you’ve specialized in those fields, then those are the terms you look for when you’re job hunting. But you don’t see job postings for “smart person who can do all kinds of things” so there is another layer of struggle in being a generalist, which is convincing yourself that you have value, and convincing potential employers that a generalist is what they’re looking for.

One thing I do want to note though, is that I don’t think this is black and white, that you’re either one or the other (specialist vs generalist). My suspicion is that it’s more like a spectrum, and we’ve all situated to a general position on the spectrum, when our personalities and interests are taken as a whole.

Emilie Wapnick gave a terrific Ted Talk called “Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling,” in which she introduces the term “multipotentialite” — it’s a really worthy watch for anybody who identifies as a generalist.

“The notion of the narrowly focused life is highly romanticized in our culture. It’s this idea of destiny or the one true calling, the idea that we each have one great thing we are meant to do during our time on this earth, and you need to figure out what that thing is and devote your life to it. But what if you’re someone who isn’t wired this way? What if there are a lot of different subjects that you’re curious about, and many different things you want to do? Well, there is no room for someone like you in this framework. And so you might feel alone. You might feel like you don’t have a purpose. And you might feel like there’s something wrong with you. There’s nothing wrong with you. What you are is a multipotentialite.”

In her followup to the Ted Talk, Wapnick touches on the extra layer of struggle: “I see career, productivity, and confidence, as the three largest multipotentialite challenges. These are areas we each need to address and find workable solutions to.”

But I think generalists have a gift as well — we are massively empathetic. I can’t speak to causation but I do think there’s a very strong correlation between generalists and empathizers. Maybe it’s an empathetic natures that drives someone to want to experience new situations and work with people and materials and projects of all kinds. Or maybe knowing enough about a lot of subject matter, and having experienced lots of roles and worked with lots of people from lots of backgrounds, it’s easier for a generalist to see things from another person’s perspective.

But in either case, this combination of empathy and exposure to many fields and skills and backgrounds is what uniquely positions generalists to be great facilitators.   In this interview, MDavid Low discusses what it’s like to have switched roles, from being a specialist and technical contributor to being a generalist. Interestingly, what he notes as a special skill in the generalist role is facilitation. In response to the question “What are the biggest pros and cons of being a ‘utility man,’ as you are, as opposed to a specialist?” he says:

I think it’s led me to be somewhat decent at being the skipper on the team. Helping to guide and motivate the team towards the right outcome, but with enough of the right insights from each role in my past to be able to provide the right insights for the future.

I like to think that the landscape is changing a bit — I know that those of us with varied backgrounds are good for the organization we work in, and I think that some organizations are seeing this and starting to write about it. This article about Location Labs delves into the company’s hiring practices that result in their 95% employee retention rate. They focus on hiring “diamonds in the rough” – people whose potential for growth is massive – and one of the ways they do that is by looking for diversity of experience.

When screening resumes, they don’t look for specific technologies or skills. They look for results. What was this person’s legacy in past roles? Over 30% of their hires in 2015 started their careers in completely different role or field. “We’ve found that candidates with this type of background have the underdog grit that allows them to be successful here,” says Grossman. “We’re not overly impressed with pedigree. We let demonstrated growth be our primary filter.”

Demonstrated growth, eh? That’s one thing most generalists can claim.


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