Are you a Generalist or a Specialist? | Expert Speak | Saurabh Nanda

Many researchers and industry stalwarts hail generalists as taking the baton from specialists to lead humanity forward. But being a generalist doesn’t mean you will be great at everything because there are areas where specialisation is the way to go. Here’s Saurabh’s Take on Generalist vs Specialist debate!

Are you a Generalist or a Specialist? | Expert Speak | Saurabh Nanda
Are you a Generalist or a Specialist? | Expert Speak | Saurabh Nanda

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.

Read more on this in the Harvard Business Review article here

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.

Read more in the research article here

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.

Anurag Bhandari, an IT architect having close to 15 years of work experience, currently working with Automattic (parent company of WordPress), calls himself an IT generalist who has switched technologies from .NET to Java to Javascript and has also conducted R&D for Accenture. When I decided to work in education, I wanted to learn everything about the sector. So in the last decade, I became conversant with psychometric assessments, test prep, cyber bullying among students, MBA, fellowships, delivering mentorship online and much more. This generalist approach helps me become a good career consultant.

How to identify whether a student should be a generalist or a specialist?

  1. Psychometric assessments assessing one’s personality traits can be extremely helpful in this. Analysing MBTI results, my team and I have found that students exhibiting the N or Intuitive trait are usually more curious about their surroundings and the world in general and focus more on breadth than depth. So ideally they should become generalists. But they need to hone this skill. All curiosity and no hardwork leads to a lot of empty, half-baked ideas. This is one of the reasons why these students often get bored easily. On the other hand S or sensing students work with the data in front of them and have a knack for being specialists. They are usually quite good analysts but lack the imagination of a generalist. This can lead them to be confused about decision making even though they have analysed every thing they can analyse.
  2. Knowing one’s aptitudes can be a good insight as well. A student having good abstract aptitude will be good in finding patterns and knowing how things work. Similarly mechanical aptitude helps one understand how physical systems and machines work. These aptitudes can be honed well by learning skills for being a generalist.
  3. Versatility shown in extra-curricular activities vs deep involvement in one academic area or activity is a clear example of generalist vs specialist traits respectively. Considering all things equal, some students naturally want to try out more and more things than others who develop expertise in niche areas like programming or athletics or dance.

How to develop generalist traits?

  1. Get your child assessed. Assessment and accurate interpretation of the assessment gives you a general direction where efforts should be put in. For example, stream selection after 10th focusses you in Science, Commerce and Humanities directions but if your decision is based on peer pressure, herd mentality or parental aspirations, there is high probability that the decision is incorrect. An unfortunate example of this is how the vast majority of Indian engineers are unemployable.
  2. Students should try out more activities, experiences, and team work. Trying everything is bad and trying nothing is worse. Students can get demotivated by too much involvement and by too little involvement. A good direction is necessary.
  3. Micro-experiments with different areas of learning. Students should make the maximum use of activities being provided by school, local clubs, summer camps, online courses and programs, competitions, and apprenticeships. Do a thing and the experience will tell you whether to do it again or not. Trust that instinct, it is thousands of years old.
  4. Help out in household chores and family businesses, if any. Students becoming bookworms are limited in their growth. That can lead to escapist tendencies as well. Family units are the easiest group activities to learn from.
  5. Participate in community service and sustainability campaigns as they offer a sneak peak into society’s complex problems. It also helps in developing higher empathy and reduces narcissistic tendencies. These are essential 21st century skills as well.
  6. Keep working on side hustles or passion projects. If your child is a curious student, let her develop her ideas and collaborate with others in school or across the world. The world today is much closer and smaller than it used to be in 2019.
  7. Try to combine seemingly unconnected subject areas together. History and Psychology, Biology and Math, Economics and Anthropology, Astronomy and Poetry. And you shall see beautiful creative ideas emerging.

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

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.

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