Generalism is a disease. It can be treated, but not cured.
In a world of increasing complexity and pressure to specialize in all industries, there remain plenty of us that simply cannot pick one thing to focus on for our lives. While everyone else races to the depths of a field-- learning everything and mastering their slice of the universe, we instead gaze at the whole landscape with wonder and start making sense of it all. We appear to be dilettantes, easily bored, unable to focus, get serious or commit. Secretly, we all wish we could love anything as much as our specialized peers. Many of us have repeatedly tried and failed, so we feel that we are somehow broken. Nothing could be further from the truth.
If this strikes a chord, congratulations you are a generalist. You are the type of person that would rather do something different every day if you could find a way to make a living doing it. You have trouble deciding between fields of work or study because you love a little bit of everything (or you hate a little bit of everything). If you are a physician, you cannot fathom the idea that you would do the same thing all day long and get better at just that thing. You try and fail to describe yourself as a collection of a few specialists. For instance, I was once called "a doctor pretending to be an engineer who wishes he had an MBA."
The world today is set up for specialists-- clear career paths, mastery of one discipline, fitting nicely into the larger machine, marching deeper into detail. And yet as complexity in society grows, the ability to jump branches to find novel solutions is more valuable than ever. This notion that we need generalists to guide us forward has appeared in science fiction, later backed up by research (like all the best ideas). So if you are a generalist, phew, you are going to be OK. But it isn't going to be easy...
As a self-diagnosed generalist, I too have experienced the exquisite pain of always being beaten out by specialists. Whether in medicine, technology or entrepreneurship, I've continually yielded my role to those that can focus to develop expertise on a focused topic. So what are you to do if you are a generalist? The way I see it there is a career path for us too, but the leaps between roles are massive, fraught with peril and rare. See, I told you it won't be easy!
The generalist career path goes from Commando->Interpreter>Integrator. In this post we will cover the Commando.
1. Commando: We've all heard the admonition: Jack of All Trades, Master of None. This bogeyman is used to warn young generalists away from our nature toward the path of specialists. It is a curse that we are destined to live if we are not careful. However, it turns out that there is a time and place when you desperately need Jacks of All Trades and those are in resource-constrained environments.
For example, in medicine, we see this in rural health, global health, and humanitarian disasters. Physicians who can do everything- deliver babies, trauma surgery, appendectomies, treat hypertension, depression- are the first ones into a disaster. And we are in awe of them. Similarly, in start-up environments, there just isn't enough work (or money) to have people dedicated to sales, marketing, product, building furniture, IT or compliance so you need people that can (or simply will) do all of them.
Toughness, grit, creativity in just-good-enough problem solving all while demonstrating the possible are all the hallmarks of the commando phase and they feel great. And doing is the essence of the Commando role. It is a blast-- you are always in way over your head, learning new things, never feeling comfortable and busy as hell. We attempt to outrun our mistakes rather than avoid them.
And while you are having fun, part of you is always wondering when the adults are going to show up. You are at first relieved when they do-- someone to help make sense of the mess that's been created with “Discipline” and “Experience.” Shortly thereafter, however, you begin to feel a combination of boredom and uselessness. Those same front-line docs don't have the same impact in a multi-specialty hospital. Start-up people flame out in large corporate cultures.
If you attempt to continue operating as a commando, you will soon either leave the situation because "things aren't the way they used to be" (boredom) or be asked to leave to make way for specialists (outcompeted). Your next move will be to find another place to be a commando, hoping that the commando phase lasts a little longer, but secretly knowing the same pattern will play out again. The truly insidious part is that the more successful of a commando you are, the faster the commando phase will end! So what else can you do? You can move on to Step 2: Interpreter.