Recently, the father of a 15 year old mentee of mine asked me, as to how can his son be good at multiple things? He was not concerned if his son becomes an academic trailblazer. Nor was he interested in him getting degrees from IITs or other such top institutions. He was simply concerned that his son should be able to “connect the dots” in a real-world scenario. I have had similar conversations with parents from all over India. So what is happening?
Who are Generalists and Specialists?
Generalists can also be called Jacks of all trades, but that classical definition is incomplete as today a generalist would know many things in abundant detail. So, they can be consultants, lawyers, accountants, doctors as well, being generalists in their respective professions.
Specialists, as the name suggests, are experts in a niche area. They can be super-specialist doctors, hardware programmers working on deep space tech, biologists specialising in cave dwelling organisms or historians of indigenous people in the South Pacific.
Many researchers and industry stalwarts hail generalists as taking the baton from specialists to lead humanity forward. So today generalists are also called innovators who use their knowledge from different domains to bring about change with examples ranging from Steve Jobs to Roger Federer. But most humans have always been generalists. There is no comparison as to who is supposed to be better or more needed. Generalists and Specialists both make humans who they are.
Most careers are generalist careers
Careers are journeys and not destinations. I remember hearing stories from my uncles who would say things like - “I just did a basic BA degree and got a job.” Neither did the subjects in BA matter too much nor the industry where the job was. Success was based on certain basic criteria such as ability to communicate, learn from others, follow instructions and so on. So my various uncles, had jobs as managers of retail bank branches, working in PSUs like Indian Oil, oﬃcers in the state government organisations such as State Road Transport Corporations, merchants and businessmen. They grew within their organisations or ecosystems by learning from seniors and gaining experience over years until they could understand workings of different sections and knew how to connect them all together. Whereas, one of my uncles studied MSc Physics from IIT Kanpur and became a professor and my father is an alumnus of NDA and IMA, and within the Army, he was an artillery oﬃcer but later on became a General Staff Oﬃcer.
A lot of us can relate to this because most of us are generalists in our careers. Of course every industry, every company, every domain is different and requires some level of specialisation. I call this being conversant with the area. But being conversant doesn’t necessarily mean you can not switch to other industries, companies or domains. Management is one big example of this transference of skills. A big reason why so many Indian specialist graduates like engineers, dentists or lawyers go for MBA right after their graduation, is because this is an easier way of becoming a generalist.
According to a team led by Cláudia Custódio of Arizona State University, the annual pay premium for generalist CEOs (those who have held a number of positions in a range of companies in varied industries) is 19% relative to chief executives who have had relatively few jobs in a limited range of companies and sectors. That amounts to nearly $1 million in extra compensation per year.
Where Specialists shine?
Being a generalist doesn’t mean you will be great at everything because there are areas where specialisation is the way to go. Highly specialised areas of research such as nanotubes or quickly evolving areas such as quantum computing, gene editing or DeFi analysis are made for specialists. Finding creative solutions or collaborating in these areas can depend on how specialised you are.
Consequently, in slow moving industries such as energy and mining, generalists can bring about innovation by absorbing information from a wide range of industries and processes.
When Specialists become Generalists
Most specialists end up becoming generalists after having developed ways to transfer their knowledge to other individuals, companies or industries. For instance, Pranav Chaturvedi, founder of Favcy Venture Builders, and his team use their unique venture building assembly line product to help startups grow. By using technology tools and processes that they researched and used for their own startups, they have now helped more than 25 companies which are solving problems like selling plants to conducting quizzes to enabling access to credit and payment systems to mom-and-pop stores. Henry Ford invented the assembly line for manufacturing cars because he could transfer the processes, he learnt by observing sawing machines and meatpacking plants.
How to identify whether a student should be a generalist or a specialist?
How to develop generalist traits?
The world is moving towards multi-disciplinary approaches. IITs have humanities departments; NEP 2020 prescribes multiple subject choices instead of limited stream specific choices; 21st century skills do not talk about hard technical skills; the world is getting automated quicker than we can imagine and we need more humans to take up jobs where they can help other humans have better lives. Let your child discover his generalist or specialist traits by providing the multi- disciplinary approach. There is a reason why our historical scientists were also philosophers.
About the Author:
Mr Saurabh Nanda is a Psychologist, Career Guide and the Founder of 'SN Mentoring’. His unique career consulting firm helps students carve a career path that leads them to career growth as well as happiness. Picking the right career can be tough and helping others do the same is even tougher. Saurabh is doing just that.