What should we be: a generalist or a specialist?

The argument between (1) being a generalist is better than being a specialist and (2) being a specialist is better than being a generalist reminds me on one of the practice essay topics for GRE.

On 20150918 at the food court of Mushrif Mall, a professor told us that he used to believe that a specialist is better than being a generalist. However, we live in a fast-changing world. Can we predict that our specialist skills / products will be required in the future?

No one can accurately foretell the future because no one can predict what technological breakthroughs will take place and have the most fundamental effects on human life and the economies of nations.” Lee Kuan Yew 20030218.

Remember that our highly interconnected and global economy means that seemingly unrelated developments can affect each other. Failures to see the big picture can be catastrophic. For example, it appears that the inflation of an unprecedented credit bubble between 2001 and 2007 may partly be contributed by economists who were dogmatically dedicated to the efficient market hypothesis.

Life is dynamics. The future has always been uncertain. While we cannot 100% forecast the future, we may identify and define certain trends that will reshape the world in the next few decades. We must constantly learn and self-renew ourselves with new skills and knowledge, while revising and keeping the old.

Moreover, we must not have expectations on others: family (including parents and children), society, government. In a system and an ecosystem with scarce resources or unidentified resources, leaders expect enterprises to grow organically. Some enterprises may fail but there will always be new ones to replace them. The successful ones grow, receive more and multiplied supports, and in turn multiply many times, to help the entire system and ecosystem to thrive.

The next question is what happens when the ecosystem shifts?

Reflecting on the question of this post, I recall a piece of classic advice by Joseph Murphy on how to be successful.
In brief:
1. find out the thing you love to do, then do it
2. to specialize in some particular branch of work and know more about it than anyone else
3. ensure that the thing you want to do does not redound to your success only, but serve the world.

In details, “The three steps to success Let us discuss three steps to success: The first step to success is to find out the thing you love to do, then do it. Success is in loving your work. Although, if a man is a psychiatrist, it is not adequate for him to get a diploma and place it on the wall; he must keep up with the times, attend conventions, and continue studying the mind and its workings. The successful psychiatrist visits clinics and reads the latest scientific articles. In other words, he is informed in the most advanced methods of alleviating human suffering. The successful psychiatrist or doctor must have the interest of his patients at heart. Someone may say, “How can I put the first step into operation? I do not know what I should do.” In such a case, pray for guidance as follows: “The infinite intelligence of my subconscious mind reveals to me my true place in life.” Repeat this prayer quietly, positively, and lovingly to your deeper mind. As you persist with faith and confidence, the answer will come to you as a feeling, a hunch, or a tendency in a certain direction. It will come to you clearly and in peace, and as an inner silent awareness.

The second step to success is to specialize in some particular branch of work and know more about it than anyone else. For example, if a young man chooses chemistry as his profession, he should concentrate on one of the many branches in this field. He should give all of his time and attention to his chosen speciality. He should become sufficiently enthusiastic to try to know all there is available about his field; if possible, he should know more than anyone else. The young man should become ardently interested in his work and should desire to serve the world. He that is greatest among you, let him become your servant. There is a great contrast in this attitude of mind in comparison to that of the man who only wants to make a living or just “get by.” “Getting by” is not true success. Man’s motive must be greater, nobler, and more altruistic. He must serve others, thereby casting his bread upon the waters.

The third step is the most important one. You must be sure that the thing you want to do does not redound to your success only. Your desire must not be selfish; it must benefit humanity. The path of a complete circuit must be formed. In other words, your idea must go forth with the purpose of blessing or serving the world. It will then come back to you pressed down, shaken together, and running over. If it is to benefit yourself exclusively, the circle or complete circuit is not formed, and you may experience a short circuit in your life which may consist of limitation or sickness”

A generalist training can equip us with an adaptable mind, quick to spot opportunities and traps. A generalist approach encourages diversity and a sense of adventure. Generalists are often required for startups.

A specialist training can equip us with an intelligent mind and nurture our passion, patience, and perseverance. Environments with more competition breed more specialists, for example coders, tech entrepreneurs and data scientists in Silicon Valley. A specialists can play the roles of a generalist.

While specialists provide tremendous content, generalists provide context to connect and serve as the link between the hard-won contents.

For professionals, it is essential to acquire a diversity of geographic and functional experiences, as well as analytical capabilities (e.g. basic statistical skills, critical reasoning) developed through these experiences.

We must have insatiable curiosity and the ability to “hyper-learn” new concepts and ideas. Innovations are often the result of associative thinking. The never-ending quest for improvement will give us motivation, energy and drive. We must be able to connect the dots and have an excellent attitude, because attitude is more important than aptitude in determining our altitude.

“Attitude is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, money, circumstances, than failures and success, than what other people think, say, or do. It is more important than appearance, ability, or skill. It will make or break a business, a home, a friendship, an organization. The remarkable thing is I have a choice every day of what my attitude will be. I cannot change my past. I cannot change the actions of others. I cannot change the inevitable. The only thing I can change is attitude. Life is ten percent what happens to me and ninety percent how I react to it.” ~ Charles R. Swindoll

My conclusion as of autumn 2015 is to continue nurturing our general knowledge and skills, yet to be a specialist of one or two particular fields. It is not that we are either a generalist or a specialist, we can be both a generalist and a specialist.

This is echoing what I learned in 2003, we must and can be like the Renaissance men of old; everyday we are cultivating ourselves to be versatile masters of our profession and also competent in many areas, which is key to our survival in this fast-changing world.

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One comment

  1. […] also important to be adaptable as we live in increasingly dynamic and inter-connected world. For example, when I grew up as a […]


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