First of all I'd just like to say that your blog is awesome. Your posts always seem to be able to deal with a lot of relevant issues in my life and I always look forward to your next post.
I just wanted to know if you were planning to delve further into the field of being a generalist. I myself am an aspiring generalist. In fact the reason I subscribed to your blog was because of your post "What separates a generalist and a dabbler?". The insight that you gave pertaining to shipping was pure gold; ever since then I've set myself more to doing things and get things things done rather than just thinking about things and planning for it (sometimes planning to make plans).
It would be really great if you could post more personal insights that you may have on being a generalist. Your advice on shipping was spot on and I was wondering that you may just be on the right track when dealing with the generalist field.
Hey D -
Great question. Really makes me think. Important, too. Wow, I'm so grateful to have such awesome readers.
I had to stop and think about this some. It's a fantastic question, but also a very broad one. You say you're an aspiring generalist. Okay then - let's start by comparing the specialist and the generalist for a moment.
Specialist: High focus on one skill/skillset. Easier to lay out a track for him to progress on, measure his track, and compare him against known standards.
Generalist: Focus on a broad range of skills. No formal track for him to progress on. Hard to measure his skill level. Harder to compare him against others.
So you see, it's a lot less straightforward trying to build a generalist skillset. It's the difference between trying to be an entrepreneur and trying to be an accountant.
Specialists make more money on average than generalists. It's easier for them to pick up their craft. There tends to be a defined path for them to walk. It's easier to measure if their work is any good, and if they're competent or not.
That's the bad news. It's easier to be a successful specialist.
More bad news - generalists peak later.
So you're hammering away on a poorly defined track, that's hard to analyze if it's working or not, that other people have a harder time understanding and assessing... for less money. And it'll take you longer to prove yourself.
Why, then, would anyone embark on this insanity?
Top generalists make way more money than even top specialists.
But top generalists also write their own ticket to do whatever they want, can easily shift careers, and - broadly speaking - top generalists rule the world.
You mention you like the insight on shipping.
The more I think about it, the more important it is for someone with a generalist background to produce tangible stuff out in the world. It's the only way we can be evaluated.
If you've got your CPA (Certified Public Accountant) or CFA (Charter Financial Analyst), I know roughly what you can do. If you tell me someone's got their CPA, you give me their resume, and tell me their top 5-10 personal interests/hobbies/loves, I can probably make a really good guess about if they can do a particular job for any given organization. You check out their personality with a couple interviews to make sure there's a fit, and you're good to go.
Not so for the generalist.
It's very difficult, near impossible, to get formally credentialed as a generalist. And it's very difficult, near impossible, to size up the ability of an unproven would-be generalist. If you look at business models that invest in generalist skillsets, you'll see they look for either a proven track record, or the model is based on a few winners paying for the (much greater number of) losers.
And that makes sense, y'know? Studying Porter's Five Force model means jack and shit if you can't pick up the phone and call your supplier and politely ask for lower rates.
Mind you, Porter is good. But a complete mastery-level understanding of Porter and the implications of it does not necessarily translate into being able to put things together and actually produce real stuff.
So again, produce stuff. Lately I've been obsessing over the idea of No Downside High Upside stuff. It's all I think about when my mind gets free. I think there's plenty of ways to do No Downside High Upside.
That's a tangible thing. He's been in a newspaper. Now, I think most prestige is kind of absurd, but most people buy into it, so you've kind of got to do it. Being in a newspaper is a success, a win. It's an example of doing something. Also, you know about the Halo Effect where you get associated positively with things you're around? You inherit some of the prestige of something like the S.F. Chronicle by being written about in it.
These external validations of your drive are worth a lot. You gotta collect some of them. A lot of artistic endeavors are validated only by external sources. Of course, money talks. Selling things for money would be cool. So if you can sell your art, that'd be some credentialing. But failing that, getting your art written and reviewed about goes a long ways. As does getting displayed in a gallery, or getting a quote from someone known as a good arbiter/filterer of taste.
Money is cool. If you can translate your generalist skills to making lots of money for people around you, that proves your concept. But failing that, other signs of external validity help. How do you assess a good candidate for a hazy-defined generalist role? Look at what he's produced. But what if it's hard to evaluate what he's produced, because there's no clear criteria for success? Then, you look at what others are saying.
So, I think you want to stack up those credentials. In an ideal world, credentialing doesn't matter, prestige doesn't matter, and results are all that matter. But we've already established that it's hard to evaluate the results before there's any results. Money, of course, solves this. But it seems like frequently the credentials/prestige precede the money. If you can reverse that and get the money first, by all means do that. You can always buy credentials and prestige if you've got money. But if you don't have money, think of high upside no downside stuff.
Again, I've been thinking about this constantly. I think probably one of the easier ways would be to get out in front of a trend LOUDLY before anyone else is. You risk looking stupid or eccentric if the trend doesn't take off, but no one actually will remember or care. Whereas if the trend does take off, you're in exceptional shape.
This strikes me as what Dan and Ian did at the Lifestyle Business Podcast, which is excellent and I recommend it. They got on the Lifestyle Design thing early after the Four Hour Workweek had excited people's interest in it. Now they run a successul podcast. Their top 3-5 podcasts would be excellent proof of concept if they ever wanted to do work in consulting or entertainment, for instance. Also, it helps them make connections with interesting people.
I gained a hell of a lot of respect for them talking about their failed attempt trying to source aftermarket motorcycle parts from China in Episode 44. And it failed! So you see, you can even turned failed attempts into a credential if you talk about them intelligently. A well-written and classy retrospective on why a startup idea failed would be a credential. If you're super gracious to other stakeholders, it reflects well on you and potentially increases your chances later. If you've got a very insightful lessons learned that show a lot of growth and perspective, it'll help you recruit relevant people for your next venture.
1. The generalist skillset is harder to measure, harder to define, harder to learn, pays less on average, and peaks later on average than an in-demand specialist skillset.
2. That sucks. That said, top generalists do whatever they want, transition their role easily when it suits them, and more or less rule the world.
3. Yes, shipping is what separates a generalist and a dabbler...
4. But also, you need to help people measure and evaluate you, especially while you're getting started. External validations of your ability will help a lot. (Cash is king, making yourself and people around you wealthy is like the ultimate credential. But sometimes it might be prudent or necessary to stack up other credentials/prestige before the cash comes)
5. I constantly obsess over No Downside High Upside. There's so much of it around now. Things that you put in your time, and you're guaranteed to learn and enjoy the process to some extent even if it pays no returns... but it could pay high returns. Start looking for this. It's everywhere. I'm literally obsessed with the concept these days, I think about it constantly, and I'm aghast that my default behavior isn't to take the biggest High Upside thing that has no real downside and jam on it every day. (Though, I'm trying)
6. On a tactical note, I think getting in front of trends loudly and publicly might be a quick High Upside No Downside way to pick up some credentials and prestige. People are risk averse, but really, you don't have anything to learn. Once you see something hit the media the first time, go try it in an interesting way, publicly, and see if you can interest someone in (buying it, writing about it, having you speak about it, whatever).
Two more quick thoughts -
First - if you're an unproven generalist, it's a risk to work with you. Thus, it's imperative you're really cool. Be willing to hustle, go out of your way to be helpful, always bring sandwiches and coffee, take notes for people, take out the trash, washes dishes, sweep the floor... show a lot of initiative and courtesy and be very gracious.
You're a risk, so being cool to work with helps. I worked with an accountant who was kind of a dick because he was a really good accountant, but it's very easy to stay on just-business-only-terms with a professional who has a defined role. But you can't get away with being a jerk or primadonna if you've an unproven generalist.
Second, read a lot of history. That's general good advice I'd give anyone, but especially for a generalist. A favorite John Rockefeller story - he was at the plant where they sealed his barrels of oil, and they used 40 fastens on the top of the barrel to keep it closed.
Rockefeller said, "Try 38." So the operator tried 38, but the barrel leaked. Rockefeller said, "Try 39." So the operator put 39 fastens on, and the barrel doesn't leak. Rockefeller then sent out a memo to all his barreling facilities to only use 39 fastens on the barrels, thus saving a couple cents per barrel - and hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years.
That story I'd never seen anywhere until I read a biography of Rockefeller, but the general principle could be applied in any industry, any financial investing, any military operations, and perhaps even in more abstract fields.
So if you want to be a successful generalist, study history - you'll find dozens of lessons that can be applied to a variety of fields, from the greatest minds who ever lived. And don't be a dick. Nobody wants to work with an unproven generalist who is a dick.
Thanks for taking the time to write about this. I have been thinking about this topic too, ever since I read Paul Graham's essay "Is it Worth being Wise?" I am still unsure how generalism relates to wisdom, since some 'wisdom' jobs would be 'specialist' in your definition. Nonetheless, the concepts are related.
I hear people talk about luck a lot. Straightup - luck doesn't exist.
If you believe in luck, then you believe either: (1) some people consistently defy probability, or, (2) some things aren't a result of cause and effect.
Life is a series of probability. Every day, there's a chance that a given set of things will happen. If you want to have a successful life, expose yourself to as much high-upside low-downside probability as you can. Any given thing you do might not work out, but if you expose yourself to high-upside low-downside, good things will happen. Read books, reach out to people, try to get projects working, keep trying to write and build things, keep learning new skills, keep treating people well.
If you want to fail at life, expose yourself to high-downside no-upside probability. This is short term gain at long term expense type stuff. Cigarettes. Unsecured debt for consumption. Most TV.
You'll keep getting "lucky" if you keep exposing yourself to things with upside and limited downside. If you get an amazing job or contract that you had a 1 in 1,000 chance of getting, were you lucky? No, especially not if you applied and pitched 1,000 other places. If you say, "Ok, I'm going to keep trying to get what I want until I do" you'll get it, as long as it's a positive sum game you're playing.
[caption id="attachment_99" align="alignright" width="288"] Leonardo DaVinci, one of history's great Generalists created a little painting called "The Mona Lisa"[/caption]
Lebron James is a beloved individual (outside of Cleveland). He parties, he endorses stuff, and he certainly isn’t short on cash and why is this? Because he’s spectacularly good at one thing. The man is debatably one of the best basketball players of all time and it’s clearly paying dividends. Society is riddled with examples like this; individuals who excel above and beyond others at a single thing. We are also taught, frequently, that hard-work and studious effor in one particular endeavor will make us exceptional individuals.
But growing up, one of my favorite concepts was the “Renaissance Man”. While politically incorrect, the concept was that an admirable quality in a person was possession of… well… all admirable qualities. These individuals would study math, science, history, art, language, and politics, never mastering one but acquiring a deep and interested knowledge of all of them. In a society of specialists and specialized economies, this is a concept that, unfortunately, has fallen by the wayside.
But I’m here to carry its standard. A recent article on 99u entitled Picasso, Kepler, and the Benefits of Being an Expert Generalist noted the myriad benefits to scientific and creative professionals that stem from a broad range of knowledge. The understanding of many topics allows one to draw analogies in other topics, spurring creativity and innovation. Even on a personal level, the idea of being a Generalist is a powerful one. When you think of adjectives to describe yourself or a list of your favorite hobbies, do they all follow a streamlined career or interest path? No. You love many things and so do I.
So embrace that. Get curious and learn about everything that interests you. Do it patiently and with conviction and see the world the way it was meant to be seen: as a proud and sophisticated Renaissance person. You’ll be more interesting and more interested, see and learn things you never thought you would, and enrich your life. Wave your standard high brethren and tell the man where to shove it in two different languages, three different mediums, and with a well-written but emotionally subtle haiku.