The phrase "Jack of all trades, master of none" does a disservice to all generalists. Generalism shouldn’t be looked down upon, but rather sought out and embraced. Generalists strive to master many complex skills. They approach and solve problems by drawing on complex bodies of knowledge across many fields.

In praise of the generalist

The phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none” does a disservice to all generalists. Generalism shouldn’t be looked down upon, but rather sought out and embraced.

The competitive world in which we live stresses hyper-specialization as the way to get ahead. University graduate degrees narrow down a student’s area of expertise to enable them fill a specific niche. And then 5 year’s later an app changes their world, and the person is unemployed.  It is a short step from  hyper-specialist to dinosaur.

Being a generalist is not about multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is possible with shallow knowledge, superficial skills and a short attention span.

Generalists strive to master many complex skills. They approach and solve problems by drawing on complex bodies of knowledge across many fields.

Why hire a generalist?

Organisations need to manage costs,  and they have realised that their ultimate employee is a “Renaissance” man or woman – a  polymath whose expertise spans a significant number of various subject areas.

Specialist jobs not only limit the employee, they limit the company also. Or as they say – when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail!

Generalist positions are expansive, and are exciting and different enough to keep a high-performance employee productive and motivated. If companies find it difficult to define a title for a position, you know you’re looking for a generalist!

Large corporations can afford to hire these specialized roles – and generalists are typically desired at startup environments to save time and resources.

My journey as a Generalist

My broad experience is partly due to the economics of South Africa.  We are a country of small and mid-sized entrepreneurial enterprises.  Historically, large corporations and the public sector hired pale males from conservative Afrikaans backgrounds. They didn’t feel that women belonged in business, and “heeltemaal tweetalig” in a job advert should be translated as – only Afrikaaners need apply.

When only 25% of the job market is open to you, you “make a plan”. You strive to fit in and learn new skills as fast as possible. You offer to help out fellow employees in need, and take on extra tasks outside your job description. The person who survives is the one with the most skills – someone who can take over the jobs of others in an emergency. Someone impossible to replace.

Engaging with people from completely varied companies, sectors, backgrounds, demographics and experiences is why I love my work. One day I’m writing, the next I speaking at a conference, then I’m designing, then I’m programming.

On any day I might need to draw on six different skills.  You can’t design a GOOD website unless you know how to programme.  You can’t programme well without a strong grasp of graphics, domains and databases.  You can’t build an internal application that manages a business without knowing business principles and how employees prefer to work.  You can’t write content that drives sales without practical experience in sales and an in-depth understanding of marketing strategy. You can’t design a logo if you don’t think first of all the ways and places it might be used, and what the layout artist will need to make sure it looks great every time.

Communication is inherently a uniquely human field  – the more I engage with diverse perspectives, companies, products, media and fields of expertise, the better I serve any one company or audience.

My advertising agency experience turned out to be invaluable when managing IT knowledge workers 10 years’ later.   Other managers felt like they were herding cats. I found that IT people are more logical and motivated than creative graphic designers. But that writing reports and filling in time-sheets is not a strength of either group!

Being a generalist also suits my personality. Discovery Channel is my second home (my first home being the internet).

I am deeply, relentlessly curious – that is why I loved being an editor and copywriter. Your job is to delve into each company and project – asking questions, interviewing people and often knowing more about that company than employees with a narrow departmental focus. I love “knowing stuff”.

If you don’t want to join ’em, you gotta beat ’em.

I believe we have created a world where disloyalty, ambition, fake news and laziness are ubiquitous and well-paid.

After a few decades, I have learned that real contentment in life is like a video game – you pick up skills like gamers pick up health and bonus points. And at some point in your career you’ll find that something that you learned because it was interesting, turns out to be critical for some project. So you get pulled into that project, and you execute it well.  Sometimes you end up unintentionally on the core team because you know how to do something weird and unusual. Techies will even forgive you being female!

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