Why the time is NOW for smart, modern generalist thinkers to win in the generalist vs specialist debate, and how this affects you too!
Despite the generalist vs specialist debate, the world has been in a specialist mindset for a century now as the industrial, and then technological, revolution brought about the need for people to find their place on a conveyor belt of constant consumerism.
Capitalism ruled the world (and still does), as increased disposable income and worldwide wealth led towards more ‘stuff’ being created, more comfort expected, and increasingly advanced technology.
The hierarchical approach towards building corporate success and personal comfort was followed up and extended through the digital age to the point where anyone can buy whatever they want at the touch of a button and it will be delivered to your door within days, even hours. People have found job roles to fit in and become part of this chain. Smart thinkers have become specialist sources of knowledge. You don’t just see a doctor, you see a specific doctor for a specific ailment. There’s niche specialists on every subject under the sun today.
Clearly, there’s been vast economic output through this specialist mindset. So when people are more comfortable than ever before, as a product of specialist thinking, then why, as this article explores, would now be the time for the smart generalist?
Here’s a look into 5 key points as to why this shift is not only occurring, but absolutely necessary, for most of us.
1) Today’s World Is A Different Environment. The Generalist vs Specialist Debate Is Intensifying
There’s been a universal shift and change in interactions over the years thanks to advancing technology and in our own self-awareness. We are more of an interconnected and globalised world than ever before.
There was a time when you would know everybody in your town, with the local butcher, bakery, corner shop and so on. The pace of life was a lot slower. It seems like we are talking about a world far away but this was very much the norm only a couple of decades ago.
It still is in some places, but technology has become accessible to the many rather than the few, and as a result, the ‘oh, what’s through that door’ curiosity of humans has led more and more to leading ‘I want that now’ instant gratification lives.
The shift in the way technology has seen us live also feeds into the way we work. It was the norm for people to go to work in an office or in a set place, and conduct our work in the same manner each day, day-in, day-out.
Before we could even consider working from home via the internet, the specialist mindset was already very much installed within us. Companies would see the most efficient output by creating a chain of hierarchy. As corporations grew and localized working was replaced by the need to sell further and further to compete, people didn’t have many roles, they had one role.
You didn’t see the local ‘jack of all trades’ running around the town doing 20 jobs. Now that person would be seen as amateurish for not sticking to a specific role. You’d have thousands of applicants coming from universities across the nation, or even from abroad, fighting it out for competitive jobs. Community spirit turned into competitive edge. Applicants would fight hard to build a CV with job titles plastered over it.
They would join an organization and fit into a ‘role’. As that became more competitive more roles would be created, each more defined and detailed. Each new job in the hierarchy leading towards more processes to be passed through department to department.
Now things are changing, or have already changed. We are conducting business with people from all different time zones. We don’t need to be in that office to get the job done. There’s many tools at our disposal to make work more efficient without needing to be at the desk.
The fact that we can now work from anywhere also affects our lifestyle choices. It’s becoming more and more the norm for people to shift from the 9-5 ‘job for life’ career ladders towards a more flexible online way of working.
However, while the opportunities and connectivity around us are changing at a vast rate our human minds are more used to structure and safety. It took us a while to shift from the local to the corporate mindset at first, yet today this specialist mindset is so ingrained within people, so much so they consider themselves their ‘title’ rather than their intrinsic worth.
You meet someone, and it’s still ‘what do you do?’ as a first line of common interactional protocol, swiftly followed by the ‘oh, I am so and so’. We have become accustomed to attach our worth to our job titles or status for so long. We are an extension of our job rather than the other way around.
There’s no doubt we still communicate through specialisms, and there’s no doubt that having specialist knowledge is very useful towards society, but in a world where we no longer have to be defined by our job role or place in the hierarchy, and where we are increasingly expected to be flexible in our working environment there no wonder a more generalist mindset is starting to appear.
Of course, we will still have times where we go to someone specifically because they have the specialist knowledge in how to do something we don’t, but when we consider the direction our world is heading, with globalisation and technology already firmly embedded within our modern cultures, we have to consider the importance of the adaptable, generalist mindset that would be able to see things differently under this constant disruption.
2) There’s An Issue With The Specialist Mindset
Simply put. We become in danger of developing routine, biased tunnel-vision.
A specialist mindset holds fundamental restraints which can stop us from truly expanding our mind in a broader sense. Tunnel-vision can have a profound effect on our overall productivity and life balance, as people become less adaptable towards diversifying their income or knowledge.
We could find ourselves digging into the depth of specialism so much that we might know everything there is to know about our specialist role, but nothing about how that role really fits into the broader overall structure.
For example, how many people really know how a business operates from start to finish. There’s plenty of job titles that require us to know a very tiny piece of the overall jigsaw. We go in to work, do our role, head back home and repeat the next day.
We’ve been taught how routine is important to live a good, consistent life, but we haven’t always considered just how much it can stop us from being adaptable to change. When there’s more disruptive change to our lives than ever before then there’s a potential danger in people finding it too hard to adapt.
Why is adapting so important? Well one word – alligators.
An alligator is not a specialist of anything. They are truly adaptable to their surroundings though. They have lived through and beyond the dinosaur era and are as strong as ever today. They adapt to every change that is brought their way, whether on land or in water.
Meanwhile, all the specialist species died out as they couldn’t adapt to a vastly changing environment. The alligator is living proof that being adaptable not only leads towards survival, but allows you to thrive in new environments.
So, putting this in human context, think about what happens when you are suddenly faced in a position of redundancy.
When people treat their one job the source of all their security it can become more important to them than their actual life balance. It’s not wise to put all your eggs in one basket. A generalist on the other hand is more likely to have their hands in different pies already.
Another aspect of having our ‘blinkers’ on is we only see things in a way that will benefit our own bias, often out of fear of the change and creating a void in our thinking. If another framework was introduced to challenge that principle then instead of adapting we would be less likely to want to change – in a sense to protect our years and years or hard work and ingrained patterns of principles from becoming redundant all of a sudden.
The catch-22 of this is that even if we realised we need to change we are so ingrained to set ways that we don’t know how to solve a problem in a different way.
We are somewhat victims of our own success. Humanity has strived for centuries to survive, persevere, and ultimately thrive. And we have. Yet never before in history have so many lived in such comfortable conditions. We have more first world problems than third world. People die more from overeating than from starvation.
Yet with such comfortable conditions we adapt less. We fall into auto-pilot. We expect instant-gratification with little effort to push ourselves to survive as much as before. People want to become famous instead of develop skills of competence. It’s when under pressure that we are forced to adapt. We may initially fight to get a job but then take it much easier once our initial basics have been catered for.
We continue to chase money, comfort or even job titles in hope it will provide us more, but what we really need is to be less afraid to adapt to changing conditions, to embrace life’s ups and downs and be more comfortable with the uncomfortable. Yet, we simply aren’t used to it compared to our grandfathers and further ancestors, so we seek a comfort zone built around security and a discipline.
Yet, if you asked people who lived long lives what the secret to their longevity was you’d hear ‘connections’ and ‘mental strength’ as the two main answers. To be able to communicate and share memories with others, and to keep their mind active. Yet if we consider our specialist world are we keeping our minds active if we are routinely repeating the same information over and over again? No, we are drifting into auto-pilot without even realising it. We might delve deeper into that field of expertise but as we do we miss other connections that might be around us in entirely different ways.
In the era where ‘knowledge is power’ it was seen that specialist knowledge gave us the competitive edge, as well as a safety net. But now there’s a shift occurring towards the requirement of more broad knowledge (over acute), to connect the dots rather than be the dots of knowledge, and this is largely because of the next point.
3) Technology Is Making Specialist Knowledge Less Critical
There’s two fundamental shifts occurring as technology advances.
Change happens quicker. AI takes over.
Change doesn’t happen over a long time anymore. People don’t go home at night and expect everything to be the same the day, week, year or even decade after.
Today you might wake up to a complete disruption in your industry and all of that hard work in one specific discipline might suddenly not be so valuable. You can work on a product for a bit too long and it’s obsolete before you know it (showing the need to be future-minded of emerging trends rather than a follower of current trends).
We see this more and more with every industry becoming more disruptive with technological advancement, and it’s the disruptors open to change who always tend to win nowadays.
We need more adaptable mindsets to counteract the constant change in technology, the sheer amount of new information available at our fingertips. The days where we had to go to university to learn to think critically are over. Sure, university still helps develop specialists, but in a world that will lead itself to those who are more adaptable and generalist, we can work and learn a vast amount simply from our own bedrooms. That’s not to say that this is a good idea for our health, but the point is it’s possible. Years before it wasn’t.
This means that we can access information about numerous topics so easily and fast can learn the basics of previously complex concepts. Think about it this way. It would take a scientists years and years of discovery to work out something that is then published and the general public can learn about in a few minutes of reading an article. That’s not to say they have the underlying specialist knowledge, but because of the internet even the most average human has access to a world of knowledge to know more about how the world works than someone who spent a lifetime dedicating themselves to a subject.
Edison is a prime example. He spent countless hours refining the lightbulb. So many failed attempts in getting it right. It’s not to say that we are intellectually smarter than Edison, or that hard graft and ingenuity isn’t required, but today we can easily read the fundamentals of how psychics work pretty quickly, leaving our minds open to push ourselves to learn more than Edison was able to in his time.
That is the vast advantage we have today because of technology, and with this we can take technological advancements further and further by the day. We have such a base of knowledge to work with, and as such we can pool together ideas and connections from seemingly unrelated sources and suddenly have a new and improved concept.
Technology takes this even further though. AI is still in its relatively early days compared to its potential. It’s ability to learn and never get tired makes us humans seem very average in comparison, worryingly so.
We are becoming more redundant to menial tasks by the day as AI proves to be more efficient at data processing than us mere humans, and it’s not just simple tasks. AI has the potential to be that instant library of knowledge that us humans spent thousands of years accumulating. The specialist mindset of learning more than the next person would become futile if trying to compete with AI and the masses of data it has over us.
Therefore, with the rise of AI our role as humans becomes more about connecting the dots with bigger thinking (that AI isn’t ‘currently’ able to do), and to ensure we develop creative and empathic humanistic solutions.
The competitive fight of corporations holds the danger of wiping out the very technology and humanity it’s racing to improve, so that individual collectivism between us becomes more important than ever, and it’s this type of ‘connecting the dots’ flexible problem solving that the generalist mindset excels at.
There seemed to be one key drive in humans being so quick (and potentially reckless) in developing AI technology, and that is to improve (with potential irony) our quality of life.
While we all now ‘hope’ there won’t be a utopian dystopian disaster on the horizon, it comes clear that AI will take over many of our roles, and therefore we need to be more adaptable and creative than ever before in order to find ways to ensure humans aren’t redundant, or to ensure we don’t just sit around in comfort like Walle’s as AI does everything for us, while we become unable to engage our brains into action anymore.
4) If We Don’t Adapt Many Won’t Have Jobs
Imagine the world in 20 years time. Will your job still be around? Will you be teaching the same principles? Possibly, but likely not.
The job for life we know isn’t there anymore. The specialist mindset of building up knowledge in one defined area is a risky one all of a sudden. It was the security, the competitive edge. You were the go-to-guy for this or that, but now your knowledge has been long since learned and shared. People can now find it easily at any time they want.
It’s pretty concerning just how many jobs AI could end up replacing, but at the same time, it could also lead to a whole host of new ones.
One thing is certain though. People can’t rely on the same ingrained knowledge they once had. It’s not a case of going to university and getting your certificates and then sitting back with the promise of a comfortable, yet arguably overly-routine, life from then on.
We are in the constant ‘university for life’ mode now. This shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing though. One of the 3 highest parameters for a happy, long life is to be mentally stimulated, and we certainly have a wealth of information at our fingertips.
It’s the mindset that needs to shift. Getting used to the notion of self-educating, or doing varied courses or experiences through life is only going to become more of the norm. Those who get stuck in the box of limited thinking will be gifted pictures of dinosaurs to share the good old times with.
It’s this world of future jobs where generalists would likely excel over their more careful approached specialists.
Simply put, generalists have more career flexibility, and in an era where it will be norm to constantly learn and re-learn we need to find ways of being rewarded for our knowledge, not for our loyalty of making one company rich (whether or not it had any actually real world value or not).
It’s not just older people who are in danger of become obsolete in the workplace. It’s anyone who isn’t adaptable. This doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for everyone to turn into technical drones thinking everything has to be tech-minded, but it is hard to think of a future where technology isn’t going to be at the heart of it, whether you like it or not.
Therefore, we absolutely have to ensure we ourselves adapt towards this changing landscape, but also ensure jobs are created to aid people into this paradigm shift.
To think that every job in the future is going to become technical would be a dangerous prospect. There are many low-skilled workers who don’t have the technical skills, and those who are afraid that a form of AI will end up replacing their job entirely (in fact 72% in a recent study).
It’s pretty obvious that technically minded jobs as engineers will be in high demand, yet what seems less obvious but really crucial are the uniquely human traits that we can bring to the table. Our ability to think creatively and critically in joining the dots is suddenly far more important, one that requires more human input. Ones that technology simply can’t do.
It’s also important to ensure we have empathy and ingenuity weaved into the fabric of our future. The thought of relying on an AI robot to decide what is right or wrong to say or do in court could have disastrous consequences, and the idea of having a robot teacher or counselor that doesn’t have the same human connection is also a dreaded thought – yet you just know that some ‘bright-spark’ whose already addicted and conditioned to technology is working on it and if not then someone else won’t be far behind.
It seems highly likely that we will have to rely on having more than just one job, but not just as a necessity, but largely by choice. Living in more flexible conditions, and living longer lives, it’s highly probable that people will want to develop different skills through life and embark on different careers.
We just need to ensure that with an aging population we find ways for people to still keep their minds active, and for us to be healthy and interconnected humans.
The thought of all of us living with companion robots as some kind of replacement to human contact hardly seems like a solution to improving a humans quality of life. It will have its uses, but no technology should be seen as a replacement for something which should require human connection.
There’s much hypocrisy over the notion of advancing our quality of life with technology only to see more people become jobless and lonely because of it.
That is the downfall of specialist tunnel-vision. We don’t want a world full of engineers with ‘blinkers’ on who don’t seem to see beyond their specialist quest of advancing technology without humanistic considerations.
We need foresight, not hindsight. We don’t want problems to become something to fix afterward. We need to adopt foresight to consider the preventative measures before going full-stream ahead.
Therefore, it seems entirely necessary for us to think outside the box more so than ever before.
5) Smart Generalists Are The Flexible Problem Solvers We Now Need (And This May Affect Your Future Too)
We’ve been so conditioned by specialist thinking for so long that big thinkers are pushed away as ‘dreamers’ who don’t have any real skill, while the specialist has come into all positions of power as they are the atypical competitive ‘winner’ that the modern world has been built upon.
However, our human curiosity has led us towards a world of vast change and the rules are changing too.
With ever-changing technology, adaptable workspaces and job roles, with AI dealing with the data and analysis better than we do, and with increasing awareness that we must adapt and be flexible to succeed moving forward, its clear the generalist has a place amongst the specialists.
Yet, there’s one particular trait that could put the generalist firmly at the helm of our future world, and its the ability to see the big picture before it happens (over the specialists more detailed orientation).
This isn’t about the pie-in-the-sky ideals of a dreamer though, or about the stereotypical generalists (perceived in specialist minds) who just don’t want to really do anything and prefer to hop from one job to another simply because they aren’t driven or decided.
We are talking about ‘smart’ generalists who see beyond the simple tunnel-vision paradigms, and who are more comfortable being uncomfortable, in adapting to other areas quickly, in seeing something others can’t, and in curating lots of varied knowledge into the right decision moving forward.
They are the flexible problem solvers that we need today. They are the pessimistic optimists who look at what doesn’t work so they can see what does across the whole picture. They are the thinkers who develop the potential outcomes so they can be fine-tuned into adequate solutions, rather than recklessly go full steam ahead with limited paradigm-biased thinking and only think of the consequences afterward.
If you think about the people involved in shaping our world today, you want them to be considering the human-centred and ethically minded practices that could impact our life as humans in an AI dominated world.
You don’t want them to be hellbent on their own biased-vision or selfish goal of only making themselves rich or comfortable, or only developing something because they can with the technology today.
You wouldn’t want a power-hungry leader in charge of buttons that could change the world who makes decisions on their ego, and you wouldn’t want an engineer who doesn’t think of the potential implications that the technology they are developing could have on the world.
How this affects future society should not be an afterthought.
This is where a smart generalist comes in. They are high-level thinkers who look over all the potential paradigms people could be aligned to, and they see how the system and human bias all links up. They are divergent to convergent thinkers. They attempt to develop sustainable solutions that are made based on their positive impact on humanity through balanced progressions.
Yet this isn’t a mindset of the few. It needs to be the mindset of the many. It’s the difference between the majority of humans with limited paradigms that control their decisions, and those who openly control their own mindset as they seek to solve solution together through ethical co-creation.
It’s important to see the difference between the two as a smart generalist isn’t about themselves. Their vision is of the whole, not of themselves. Their ego is left at the door.
To make an important distinction just think about a modern day ‘activist’.
They may think they are putting themselves forward to ‘make a difference’ to the world, and in their minds they 100% will be. However, they are largely not coming from a big-picture perspective. They are coming from their own paradigm, their own ingrained bias.
The problem with biases is that we are blind to them. We might think today we can train ourselves out of our biases, but often this comes through ineffective unconscious bias training that doesn’t help us rid of our biases, unconscious bias training can actually make our biases worse.
In short, this can become dangerous thinking that leads people to form alliances with others who fit their paradigm or identity group, and it can often lead them to absolve responsibility of them as individuals, as they instead operate from an identity group rhetoric where an ego-inflated rebellious nature comes out as they are trying to force others to listen to their ego. It becomes mistaken as making a difference when in fact it ends up creating more division than unity.
If we think about those who have truly made a measurable impact on humanity over our history it’s actually only around 1% of humanity. Of those who have, they often came from renaissance-type thinking – ones who positively disrupted change towards balanced progression of humanity. It wasn’t those with ego-centric ideals that created wars and arguably pulled humanity back.
Now, while it’s not easy to make such a measurable impact on the world, and not everyone thinks like Da Vinci or Edison, it’s really more about the mindset of having a visionary perspective on life. Being able to envision the different potential outcomes and effects from different scenarios isn’t something that only disruptors and futurists can do, it’s a design thinking strategy that every business and every individual can, and should, employ today.
Smart generalists make good leaders as their vision can see where the ship is heading before it sets out to sail. Yet in the world of specialists too often we see politicians and other leaders lack notable vision as it often becomes more about their own ego needing validation. It brings about a more selfish nature and agenda, due to its competitiveness.
A large advantage a smart generalist has is they aren’t restricted and look at varied information to work out solutions, that specialists can’t always see.
If you think about how an organisation’s hierarchy would work through a specialist mindset. They would band together all the specialist knowledge and then the leader would still choose what they thought was right.
In a more generalist organization, you would see co-creation throughout where anyone can adapt to a different team or project with ease and bring along a fresh perspective that others would be open to hear.
It might be that a specialist has some specific insight that is useful but the solutions wouldn’t come directly from the specialist but from the co-creation of different minds seeking to solve a common problem.
A smart generalist mindset also improves life outside work too as they would be more likely to want to try out different experiences and not to focus too much attention on learning one thing. They would find out all sorts of information and insight through interacting with people from all different walks of life.
Diversity becomes a huge advantage not only in the opportunities it might present when you meet someone new, but in seeing things from a perspective you might not have thought of before, making life both less biased and more exciting – as you always feel you have something new to learn. Let’s face it, we humans are curious and when stifled we are usually pretty unhappy and less productive.
If we want to be of that 1% who truly make a difference to the world we have to start by thinking of the bigger picture in how our actions are affecting it, and how we can still proceed to progress and add value in life, work, and business with human-centred and ethically minded considerations as we do. Our job title means nothing in that regard.
In order to have more people in the world thinking that way, we need to move forward with a smart generalist mindset. Change is happening all the time, so now is the time for the smart generalists amongst us to adapt to it.