Generalists versus Specialists

Abhijit Bhaduri | Updated on August 15, 2019

But wait, is there a third path that spells success?

Which path is a recipe for success — a generalist’s or a specialist’s? What is the right age to make a career choice? Should one choose early and take a distraction-free path? Or should one try out a sampling of possibilities before deciding?

Children in Armenia start thinking about their careers at a very young age — around six months or so. The ceremony is called “agra hadig” or “atam hatik.” In many parts of India, there are similar rituals performed.

As part of the ritual, objects symbolising different professions are arrayed in front of a child: a microphone for an entertainer, a stethoscope for a doctor, scissors for a tailor or money for a banker. Whichever object the baby chooses first is thought to be a sign of where the child’s professional aptitude lies.

Imagine a kid who starts off trying every sport possible. From skiing, wrestling, swimming, skate-boarding, basketball, handball to table tennis and soccer. Did I mention tennis? Yes, that too. What would you advise such a kid?

Most people would say, “Make up your mind, will you?”

The kid I am talking about is Roger Federer. He attributes his success to sampling all these sports. It built his athleticism and hand-eye coordination.

Early vs late bloomers

If you ignore Mark Zuckerberg, what would be the average age of the founders of the fastest growing successful start-ups? It is 45 years. Does that surprise you? It surprised me for sure. Why are these successful entrepreneurs late specialisers?

From artistic creation to technical invention, having diverse experiences seems to be the key to a successful career. So does that mean the world does not need specialists? Of course not.

Several problems need an interdisciplinary perspective. They are too complex to be solved by an individual.

But how do we maintain breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking and delayed concentration in a world that demands hyper-specialists?

Generalists vs specialists is not a new debate. There are areas where specialists have an advantage. Specialists do well in fields where there is one clear path to success. Tiger Woods symbolises the specialist path to success. Many parents often view an early headstart as an advantage.

Early specialisers jump off to an earnings lead after college. But later specialisers make up for it, by finding work that better fits their skills and personalities.

When Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman probed the judgments of highly trained experts, he often found that experience bred confidence but not skill. Specialisation worked well in chess players, poker players and firefighters. Specialists do not do well as predictors of financial or political trends. Nor are they good at predicting human behaviour. Specialists do well in settings where patterns repeat and feedback is immediate and accurate.


Wicked problems

The world often hands us what are called “wicked problems.” These are settings where the rules of the game are unclear or incomplete. The patterns do not repeat and feedback is often delayed or misleading. The world is increasingly beginning to sound close to that description.

In these settings, the late specialisers often thrive. They keep multiple career streams open even as they pursue a primary specialty. The ability to connect new ideas and work across contexts is a key predictor of success, says David Epstein in his book Range.


Learning from experience

Specialists often learn from experience. Think of the way “coaching classes” operate. They take questions that have appeared in previous years and create similar problems that they make students repeat ad nauseam. The coaching classes are successful because many entrance examinations to prestigious institutions depend on doing well in such tests. These are tests that favour those with higher cognitive capabilities.

What is the largest prime number below 200? The entrance tests to engineering colleges, management institutes, etc, are all heavily skewed in favour of those who can answer the questions instantaneously. Given adequate time, most people can solve such problems in these entrance exams. Why, then, is employability an issue for so many smart, educated people?

Learning without experience

When people start working, they have to work with people who do not always agree with the ideas offered. The best ideas very often do not guarantee success. Working with people is one of those “wicked” challenges. It is hard to find patterns that repeat. What works with one manager does not work with the other. A colleague who seemed so amiable one day could betray you the next day.

All of us can learn from experience if the future is much like the present. How do we learn without experience? That is what learning agility is all about. This is where having a breadth of experiences is an advantage. It enables people to take ideas from one discipline and apply it to another context. A quick look at the resumes of several CEOs reveals that most of them were not class-toppers. The skills needed to do well in a test are not a predictor of success in a different setting.

Inspiration is everywhere

The field of bio mimicry uses nature as inspiration for design. Researchers have managed to mimic the biomechanics of a gecko’s feet in a pair of climbing pads capable of supporting a human’s weight.

Behavioural economics was formed at the intersection of psychology and economics.

When traditional economics failed to explain human behaviour in the real world, Daniel Kahneman wondered if we were putting too much emphasis on our assumption that human beings are rational. Maybe it is time for Human Resources principles to be questioned.

The Curious Mind

What can you do to thrive in such a world? Do not make it an ‘either or’ choice between being a generalist or having a specialisation. Try to read something about a different field every day. Listen to music from another country. Read magazines that cater to different hobbyists. From motor-cycle racing to polymers, there are fascinating ideas everywhere. Try and find ways to apply those ideas to your world. Try out cuisine you never have. Learn about words that have no equivalent in your language.

The future does not belong to the generalist or the specialist. It belongs to the curious mind.

Abhijit Bhaduri is an advisor on talent management to organisations and a social media influencer.

Published on August 15, 2019

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