If a generalist–or a “jack of all trades”–is someone who prioritizes breadth of knowledge across a diversity of skills, interests, and topics, a specialist focuses on the depth of expertise in a particular subject matter.
As a content writer, screenwriter, and journalist who has written everything from personal finance blog posts to fictional time travel stories to climate change reporting, I am most certainly a generalist. However, I interview people all the time who are notable specialists, having honed their skills in a niche area of expertise, like mycology or Central Asian Studies.
I previously thought that in seeking to interview these distinguished experts, I was seeking something that I lacked in my own life: a type of hyper-specialization that (I thought) gives one’s life and career purpose and deeper meaning.
I recently watched The Queen’s Gambit, a Netflix show about a fictional burgeoning young chess prodigy, Beth Harmon, who quickly rises through the ranks of the chess world. Beth’s friend Jolene, tells her, “You’ve been the best at what you do for so long. You don’t even know what it’s like for the rest of us.”
That’s how I felt about specialists for the longest time. I had seen specialists as inherently superior to generalists–able to achieve a level of mastery in their domain that none rest of us mere mortals could manage.
I’d always suspected that my interest in exploring numerous subjects and disciplines was at odds with the specialist worldview, and that disconnect often made me uncomfortable. But I have since changed my mind.
A generalists’ world
It all began when I read journalist David Epstein’s book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, earlier this year.
Epstein’s book highlights the advantages of generalists, showing how many experts–like world-renowned tennis player Roger Federer–actually took time to experiment with different disciplines before settling on their specialty, benefiting from this exploration in various fields.
His book also makes a strong case for the value of cross-disciplinary approaches that generalists often shepherd. These cross-disciplinary, generalist approaches leave the greatest long-term impact upon their fields, even if they’re initially received with skepticism. Epstein writes in the book:
“To recap: work that builds bridges between disparate pieces of knowledge is less likely to be funded, less likely to appear in famous journals, more likely to be ignored upon publication, and then more likely to be a smash hit in the library of human knowledge.”Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialist World
Epstein’s book was a revelation, shattering everything I had previously known about approaches to work and life. I realized that my generalist tendencies are my superhero power–they are what make me such an effective writer in a variety of fields and subject matters. It’s because of the generalist mindset that I can go from writing content for a handyman’s website one day to detailing the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople the next day.
I also believe that being a generalist has helped me stand out when applying for full-time or part-time positions. I’ve been able to take skills learned in one arena, such as project management, and apply them to another field. Research shows that generalists like me are more likely to become a leader in my field and more likely to be able to take on diverse, challenging roles to adapt the organization’s shifting needs in the future.
“There are some times now when employers are looking for a person who can span two traditional roles. In that case, a candidate with that [broad] experience could be a perfect fit,” said Peter Capelli to me in an email interview. Capelli is the Director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School and author of the book Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It.
Plus, given the ever-increasing uncertainty of the job market, the generalists’ adaptable skillset and interest in a variety of fields can come in handy.
Instead of limiting yourself to a small handful of positions, the world is your oyster…right? Well, not quite.
The generalist job struggle
“What employers want is a good fit for the job that has to be done right now. They are not looking to see whether someone can grow into a position or move to another role in the future. So [the] jack-of-all-trades in the sense of a broad skill base is not as useful in getting hired as is someone with deep experience in one area,” wrote Cappelli.
This hiring focus on specialists has become pronounced in recent years, according to Capelli, “because employers increasingly are looking for candidates with extremely specific sets of experience that map perfectly onto the job they are trying to fill, even when the job is reasonably unique to their organization.”
The advantages of generalists in the era of automation
Attitudes are starting to change as more research emerges on the advantages of generalists in the workplace. And one study from 2017 indicates that generalists can best compensate for their potential disadvantages (lack of depth) and produce their most creative thinking when working in tandem with researchers from diverse fields.
Epstein’s book also shows how generalists excel at creative and analogical reasoning, and how generalist knowledge can help with problem solving.
Generalist thinking also lends itself to adaptability, which is sorely needed in the era of rapidly increasing artificial intelligence. “I believe that generalists are better able to navigate uncertainty because they are more equipped to connect dots into [a] new and innovative relationship,” said Vikram Mansharamani to me in an email. Mansharamani is the author of the book Think for Yourself: Restoring Common Sense in an Age of Experts and Artificial Intelligence. Generalist innovation, according to Mansharamani, is the “novel element that escapes many artificially intelligent systems (at least so far!).”
Learning to become a jack of all trades
But what if you’re a devoted specialist who hasn’t yet had the opportunity or desire to branch out into other fields and skillsets? Can you adopt a more generalist mindset? According to Mansharamani, it’s definitely doable.
“Yes, if you’re inclined to be a specialist, make an explicit effort to step back and widen your lens,” said Mansharamani. For example, a marketing specialist in footwear should try to learn about finance or other aspects of the footwear industry as well as marketing tactics in other industries. “Eventually, you may develop an interest in learning about non-marketing functions in non-footwear industries.”
Mansharamani also suggested skimming reading print magazines and newspapers, “because doing so will force you to skim headlines as you work towards the topics that naturally capture your (specialist) interest.”