The Generalist - background

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A generalist is someone with a wide array of knowledge, the opposite of which is a specialist. Specialists are often individuals who have chosen their career from an early age, and have spent their education finding out everything they can about a specific area of interest.

When discussing the animal kingdom, each creature resides on a species scale of generalists to specialists. Specialist creatures like the koala bear can only survive on an extremely limited set of conditions: diet (eucalyptus), climate (warm), environment (trees). Generalists, on the other hand (think mice) are able to survive just about anywhere. They can withstand heat and cold, eat your organic breakfast cereal or seeds and berries foraged in the wild.

If you're not 100 per cent sure of the career path you wish to take, or are looking for a bit more variety in your work, then becoming a generalist may be the best option. It may also be the path your career will naturally take as you are drawn to roles suits generalists.

Generalists find themselves attracted to roles such as:

- Event Management
- Business Management
- Broadcasting

Roles that involve an array of different skills
Despite the corporate world’s insistence on specialisation, some studies show that the workers most likely to come out on top are generalists—but not just because of their innate ability to adapt to new workplaces, job descriptions or cultural shifts. Instead, according to writer Carter Phipps, author of 2012’s Evolutionaries, generalists will thrive in a culture where it’s becoming increasingly valuable to know “a little bit about a lot.” Meaning that where you fall on the spectrum of specialist to generalist could be one of the most important aspects of your personality—and your survival in an ever-changing workplace.

In other arguments for the rise of the generalist, consider this research from the University of Pennsylvania’s Professor Phillip Tetlock, as referenced in a recent Harvard Business Review Blog post. Tetlock studied 248 professional forecasters over 20 years to determine whether experts or non-experts make more accurate predictions in their areas of expertise. After collecting more than 80,000 forecasts he concluded that when seeking accurate predictions, the non-experts were the best bet. It’s better, he said, to turn to those who “know many things, draw from an eclectic array or traditions and accept ambiguity and contradictions” than so-called experts. Relying on a single perspective, he found, was problematic, even detrimental to predicting an accurate outcome.

This article by Lily Qi might also interest you.