We have all heard the phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none”, but only few of us may have heard the full version “Jack of all, master of none, but better than a master of one”. Originally meant as a way to praise one’s versatility, the label “Jack of all trades” carried no negative connotation historically. The original quote represents someone who is not the specialist at all skills, but is better than someone who is only a master of one skill. The emphasis being on “better”.
Someone having a good knowledge of multiple fields or multiple knowledge areas in a field is assumed to be a Jack of all trades in the work life. This gives a great advantage of seeing things in an integrated way. On the other hand, Specialization is an economic derived term which is essentially an agreement within a community, an organization or a larger group where each of the members best suited for a specific activity assumes responsibility for its successful execution.
“Specialized generalists” is a relatively new term gaining ground in our Information age especially in the technology industry. The word expert generalist is a term coined by Orit Gadiesh, the chairman of Bain & Company. Our world is currently moving away from specialized expertise to the specialized generalist- experts with varying skill sets that are able to thrive in a wide variety of industries.
For a very long while, the call for specialization has been loud and clear. The generalist has been taunted with such sayings like “Jack of all trades, master of none”. Specialization has been forced on the workplace making the acquisition of varied skill set unattractive and difficult. The tide is shifting. Generalists are gaining grounds, breaking barriers in various industries. They seem to have rendered the word “specialized” obsolete. They are the Steve Jobs and Elon Musk of this world.
Why Military Generals are called Military “Generals”?
Why are Military Generals called “Generals” and not “Specialists”? Maybe it just doesn’t sound right to the ears. That’s not the reason or is it? The military, a highly disciplined and complex organization is a place where the specialized generalist excels. In military, with varied complex individual units, the generalists bring their integrated viewpoints and strategic thinking to play, thus serve as a cohesive force in the command structure. Their multi-diverse thinking and approach to issues play critical roles in their favor. Knowing enough about varied units has enabled the military generals not to be boxed into a corner when taking critical decisions that affect the outcome of any decisive battle. Time and time again, the best battles have been won when a multifaceted and multipronged approach was applied and the specialized generalists do it the best.
Creativity is just connecting things. When You ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about these experiences than other people – Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs & Elon Musk – As specialized generalists
Steve Jobs was able to achieve the much he did because he grew his knowledge over the time in different skills and combined them together to have radical views – making him a specialized generalist in technology. In a wonderful documentary about him, “Steve Jobs: One last thing”, an overreaching secret that has been touted as the secret to his success was his voracious curiosity. Only the specialized generalist feeds on this trait, and that accounts for his success. His foundation in Zen Buddhism, Philosophy, Calligraphy (the secret of the iPhone fonts success) and other varied interests in tech and marketing made Steve Jobs the Man he was.
Elon Musk has achieved a lot in different fields including Space Industry and the electric-powered cars. He claims to get most of his ideas by just reading about them. Elon Musk has ignored the old call for specialization only has practically proved how being a specialized generalist makes you a leader today. With degrees in Economics, Business, Physics and a background in applied physics and material science, he proves why there should be more calls for today’s entrepreneur to adopt his approach. Many say being an expert generalist is a sure path to mediocrity, we have Elon Musk and a bunch of others to counter their arguments.
The I vs T people
The “I vs T people” is a concept that has been popularized by recruiting agencies when sourcing for individuals with different ideologies when it comes to how they approach their skill set/ abilities.
Who are the T-shaped Individuals? Tim Brown, CEO of the IDEO design consultancy, a chief proponent of this concept, defines T-shaped individuals as people who have two kinds of characteristics, hence the use of the letter “T” to describe them. The vertical stroke of the “T” is a depth of skill that allows them to contribute to the creative process. That can be from any number of different fields: an industrial designer, an architect, a social scientist, a business specialist or a mechanical engineer. The horizontal stroke of the “T” is the disposition for collaboration across disciplines. It is composed of two things. First, empathy. It’s important because it allows people to imagine the problem from another perspective- to stand in somebody else’s shoes. Second, they tend to get very enthusiastic about other people’s disciplines, to the point that they may actually start to practice them. In short, The T-shaped individuals have been known to maintain their depth of knowledge in their core skill-set (Vertical part of T), whilst keeping the flow going by getting involved in areas elsewhere (the horizontal part of T).
In a very sharp contrast, an I-shaped individual is a person who offers depth in one area only and nothing else. They are the core specialist, the ‘master of one trade’ people.
The ever-increasing demand for the T-shaped person in huge organizations such as Procter and Gamble, Nike, Apple and many others has shown the shift in qualities recruiters are searching for in our ever-competitive business world.
The profits you get being a specialized generalist
See the interconnectedness – A specialized generalist can always see the possibilities of how “this” and “that” works together. It could be different fields or different knowledge areas in a field, he knows the connection to maximize the effect of the output.
Adaptable/ Plug & Play – The knowledge of different areas makes specialized generalists adaptable to different positions, even places. They are always considered as the plug & play assets. Moving from one professional capacity to another makes them just too vital to be pushed aside.
Ability to jumpstart – A specialized generalist is unstoppable for the quick implementation of the ideas they have. They know various fields, so they do not have to worry about having someone for implementation. They can always jumpstart and come up with prototypes before looking out for partners or employees to do it for them.
Learn to lean – Specialized generalists easily focus on fixing the shortcomings by building, comparing and measuring their knowledge and products. With multidimensional skills, they can always pivot or preserve based on the analysis and build around them to maximize the end results.
Sea of possibilities – With the growing realization for putting specialized generalists to work and shoot two birds with one arrow, there are seas of opportunities for the specialized generalist. They are the valuable assets for most of the companies.
To thrive, to lead and have a futuristic vision, the key is to become a specialized generalist. Someone who is able to look at the world and the problems from different perspectives, applying a horizontal approach (multi domains) and not just vertical (single domain). This is because, in a world of dogmatic specialists, it’s always the generalist who ends up running the show.