In my experience the most successful leaders are those who are able to apply what they’ve specialized in learning to areas outside their particular domain of expertise. No one can be an expert at all things, so each of us needs to embrace a generalist mindset in order to thrive in our careers.
Getting a jump on others by specializing in a sport, musical instrument or field of study early in life was thought to be the pathway to success. Putting in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice meant you’d become proficient at whatever it is you chose to pursue. But is this really the best way to achieve success and satisfaction?
In the book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, author David Epstein makes a convincing argument that early specialization in your field of study doesn’t necessarily ensure you’ll be successful or satisfied in your career.
By first comparing two very successful athletes, Epstein contends that while it may make sense to specialize early in some areas, this is not the case in most. He compares world-famous golfer Tiger Woods and world-famous tennis player Roger Federer. Both have been extremely successful, but while Woods was groomed for golf beginning when he was toddler, Federer tinkered in many sports and didn’t focus on tennis until he was 12.
Epstein suggests we currently overvalue specialists and undervalue generalists.
The value of early specialization is domain dependent. In chess, for example, it is hard to conceive of becoming a Grandmaster without playing the game from a fairly early age. Chess and golf provide what Epstein calls a kind learning environment. They provide immediate feedback loops because they are constrained situations and essentially repeating patterns.
It turns out the kinder the learning environment, the more amenable that particular domain is to both specialization and automation.
Today, nearly three-quarters of Americans work in a field other than one related to their major in college. And, at the same time, many college graduates are burdened with huge student loan debt without the benefit of an appropriate degree to help pay them off.
According to Epstein, students should be thought to think before being taught what to think about. So often students come prepared with scientific spectacles, but do not leave college carrying a scientific-reasoning Swiss Army knife. And it is this scientific-reasoning Swiss Army knife that is what is most necessary in creative problem-solving.
Jobs with tasks that are constrained and repetitive are the ones that will become automated through technology. On the other hand, people who can take conceptual knowledge from one area or domain and apply it to entirely new ones are those most likely to remain viable in the future job market.
This ability to apply knowledge more broadly comes from broad training. Deep analogical thinking requires recognizing conceptual similarities in multiple domains or scenarios that may seem to have little in common on the surface. Taking a number of liberal arts classes while pursuing a degree in computer science or molecular biology may be extremely important later in your career.
As a leadership coach, I find I continually remind clients that in order to grow their leadership capacity it is necessary to reach beyond their area of specific expertise and think more strategically about how their own area applies and impacts other parts of the business.
This more generalist perspective is necessary the higher one rises in any organization. To take up residence in the C-suite requires thinking strategically above and beyond your own area of expertise to help find the best organization-wide solutions. It is about collaborating with other functional leads to arrive at the best decisions for the overall business.
By applying a generalist mindset, you will thrive in your career and help benefit the entire organization.