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A case against the specialist vs for the generalist

Anthony Mai

8 min read

Dec 1, 2023

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What impression comes to mind, if I were to ask you to imagine someone who is successful in their domain? Have a think through a variety of domains, such as academics, business, sports, arts, what are the top performers like?


I would guess that one of the common features would be that they are a genius. Someone who’s skills are a gulf apart from the rest of the competition. They can seemingly do things that a whole group of their peers working together cannot. I actually agree with this view. I think geniuses are very real and their genius does make them very successful. But what I want to discuss, is a very similar term, that I have a very different opinion of. That is, the concept of a specialist.


These two are often conflated when I think they shouldn’t be. And I think many people who are seeking success or genius, accidentally work towards becoming a specialist, to their own detriment.


Let’s define the specialist. We can think of a continuum, on which we can compare individuals, and how broad their knowledge and skills are. One end is the generalist, who may possess many skills, while the other end is the specialist, who has devoted most of their practice on a particular skill. Our society holds some shared beliefs about these two classifications. We champion the specialist, by teaching our youth that humans have limited time and must pick a specific role to be able to be useful. We denigrate the generalist, there is even a saying for it, “a jack of all trades and a master of none.”  


Science and sports journalist, David Epstein has spent much of his career studying the nature of high performance, and a lot of my views on this topic are synthesised from his speeches and writings. I highly recommend his TED talk for an entry-level introduction, and his book, ‘Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World’ for the detail.


Here are the points I want to make in the specialist vs generalist debate:

  • Specialists in our real world are flawed because they are not actually specialists

  • A generalist is on the path to genius


I’ll end by sharing some of my favourite examples of successful generalists from David Epstein’s research.

 

1.    Specialists are not actually specialists


I think intrinsically there is nothing wrong with a specialist. In our complex world that runs on cooperation, it is efficient for people to focus on specific roles to keep society running smoothly. The first problem however, is the rise in dependency as the number of roles balloon in number and specificity. If you imagine a pre-modern society for example, you might have some individuals tasked with agriculture, while others hunt, and others create tools and build. Now if all the people tasked with a specific role were wiped out, say in a natural disaster, there would be disruption, but the society would have enough broad skills to likely survive and slowly retrain to cover the gap. If you lost the ability to hunt, you could still subsist off agriculture, and the skills in the other domains likely provide some sort of base to learn how to hunt. Contrast that with our current society. The standard of living is substantially better, but each individual human is completely dependent on the specific skills and technology of many other people to even survive. For example, if we somehow lost all toasters and all the blueprints for them, it would be ridiculously hard to rebuild. There are very few humans who singlehandedly possess the ability to create a toaster from scratch. That is, not just the knowledge of electrical engineering, but also metals fabrication and assembly to put it all together.


Okay, so far this seems fair enough. If you debate this point with most people, they will concede that specialisation creates a more dependent society, but that it is totally a worthwhile trade-off for the advancement in human civilisation and quality of life. Where we run into a real problem, is the second thing that starts to happen as you continue to specialise. Dependence is acceptable, and part of developing complexity. Next however, is incompetence.


If you continue to subdivide roles, you will start to trim away feedback and context. In the village example, that would be like if within the agricultural workers, one person was tasked only with planting seeds, and someone else watered the crops and someone else did the harvesting. There is no way for there to be any organic (pun?) feedback for each person. The person planting seeds could be doing a terrible job, but they would have no idea. Even worse, they may start to invent incorrect feedback from their limited view. For example, they may decide that seeds have to be planted in a certain orientation or depth, with no real basis for the claim.


In the real world, the domain of academia, a field that is very near and dear to my heart, unfortunately suffers greatly from this effect. Academics can come up with unproven theories and spread them quite extensively without any real application of it in the real world. Some academic fields are better than others at this, you could argue that the physical sciences have quite robust feedback mechanisms, but the social sciences definitely have a harder time. This is not to say one field is superior to the other, they just have different nuances! For example, in the world of education theory or pedagogy, ideas can be proposed and published from the confines of a university office. Sometimes studies or surveys are conducted, but they are almost never conclusive. For some famous social science cases where there is substantial external interest, enough funds could be raised to conduct enormous longitudinal studies that cover thousands of people and span multiple years. But even then, those studies will struggle to ‘prove’ something and may later be revealed ultimately to still have flawed methodologies. Jobs are so specialised now that there is a different person who writes about the theory of teaching, to the one who actually teaches (like high school teachers). And many practitioners of teaching will tell you that the theories they read about or are taught at university are largely useless in the classroom.


This is an important idea because we can use it to further deconstruct the specialist myth. We need to acknowledge that the specialists that are glorified as a remarkable minority. Think about how many people obtain PhDs and write theses but won’t be able to nab one of the very few academic jobs at a university. Think about how many papers are published but barely read or cited by anyone. We only hear about the few who get Nobel prizes and other prestigious awards.


So why should we beware walking down the specialist path? Because we need to question if we are genuinely developing expertise in a certain skill. And in my opinion, the majority of specialists in our world are fake, a true specialist is very rare. This isn’t a judgement on people, but a warning. Because a fake specialist can find employment and security if they are in a system that believes in them. But if they are subject to the whims of a rapidly changing world. If a job or role is made redundant, the fake specialist will struggle to convince someone to pay them for their work.


2.    What is a true specialist?


So far, we have talked about skill development for the narrow purpose of employment. But to move into a more holistic scenario, let’s talk about personal development for life as a whole. The specialist narrative breaks down even further. I think good examples of specialists that are genuinely competent at their skill often come from the world of sport. This is because many sports have well-defined rules less chaotic elements to it compared to the real world. While there are still unknown variables in a soccer match, it clearly does not compare to running a business in the real world. The most extreme example this would be the game of chess. A chess grandmaster is certainly really good at what they do. But how often do we encounter scenarios that resemble chess in real life? Does chess have any transferability to business? To public speaking and leadership? And a new risk arises, which is obsolescence. The more artificial a skill is, the more it strays away from using the unique talents of humans. Chess and other games have already been utterly conquered by machines and AI.


How does one develop true competency? This is a loose framework that I have come up with, which separates the practice/application of a skill into key stages. The first stage is when a skill can only be tested in theory or an artificial environment. To build from examples already discussed in this write-up, in education research, we can devise a new classroom intervention and cross check it against the theoretical frameworks that are universally accepted in the field to see if it makes sense, and how it can be improved. In another example, a science student doesn’t straight away perform a chemical reaction in a lab or build a simple machine. They begin by solving simple paper problems. We begin by testing in theory, due to our relative incompetence in the skill, and the need for feedback to be given appropriate to our level. Someone learning a sport who jumps into a game to get completely destroyed doesn’t learn much except the fact that losing is not fun.


As we get better, we can test ourselves in intermediate simulations of the real thing. In academia, this would be publishing our work and having it peer reviewed by others. In professional work, this might be an apprenticeship or internship. Now there is a secret advantage that some people will have access to at this stage. And that is, if the already possess competency in other domains, there is likely some degree of transferability between them. A multi-sport athlete has existing fitness, but more importantly, more subtle trained abilities such as kinaesthetic awareness (having fine control over their body and senses). A student can copy study techniques from other subjects. That is, generalists are better learners!


The final stage is application into the real world, where feedback is much more complicated, and often deceptive. A specialist lacks internal mechanisms to stay true to the path of improvement. A generalist has multiple domains to draw from to test for coherency. Thus, my framework for mastery has reached its conclusion, and a startling discovery is made. The generalist is actually the one who is on the path of genius!

 

3.    The tortoise and the hare


the tortoise and the hare

You already intuitively understand the generalist argument, it is a retelling of the tortoise and the hare story. Being a generalist is about taking your time to build up the right foundations to be more efficient when it comes to application. If someone told you to drop out of high school because it would mean that you can starting working earlier, you would correctly see the flaw in that argument. The skills you develop in high school, and likely tertiary study will greatly increase your earning potential, and it is likely that this further study will allow you to eventually overtake that of someone with less skills who started working earlier. I’m just making the claim, that we should extend this logic further, our best years to learn continue well into our twenties. Let’s look at some real-world examples where this has happened.


4.    Some case studies and examples of specialists vs generalists


Early specialisation rarely eventuates to real world impact: “Psychologist Ellen Winner, one of the foremost authorities on gifted children, noted, no savant has ever been known to become a “Big-C Creator,” who changed their field.”


Invention or innovation often comes from people who have a unique combination of skills: “Steve Jobs famously recounted the importance of a calligraphy class to his design aesthetics.”


Electrical engineer Claude Shannon took a philosophy elective at university where he was introduced to the concept of assigning ‘1’ and ‘0’ to true and false statements. This would give him the foundation to later be a key figure in the invention of computer languages.


Success often happens in a later stage in life:


The romanticised image of a successful entrepreneur is an upstart youth who drops out of university and rapidly scales a start-up.

Statistically, most people only do their best work in their 40s. In a US survey of businesses launched between 2007 and 2014, the average age of successful entrepreneurs was found to be 45 in the first year of their business. Founders in their early 20s have the lowest likelihood of building a top-growth firm.

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