I am an IDEA geek. Curiosity should have been my middle name. I love learning new things, and this time of year I get nostalgic for “back to school.” Not literally, but more in the vein of “it’s time to open my mind up to new possibilities.”
Travel is my classroom of choice—there’s nothing like a good walk in another world. Reading is a close second. I also love to take classes—language classes, cooking classes, and this fall, drawing classes. I know I’ll never be an artist; I just want to be able to draw things that inspire me as a way of visually taking notes and remembering things. I’m a classic generalist--I like knowing a little about a lot of things.
There are many ways to learn. I recently read a fascinating article in The New Yorker about TED Talks, titled “Listen and Learn.” (TED Talks is a series of Internet lecture videos--TED stands for Technology, Education, and Design.) The author, Nathan Heller, calls TED “a conference that has turned ideas into an industry.”
Heller described two very different ways of thinking about ideas that shape intellectual life today: sunflowers and bougainvillea. The sunflower represents specialization. A sunflower has a large center, held up by a strong stalk. It can be carried around easily—its form and beauty hold even after it has lost its roots. Sunflowers can be given to someone else or set in a vase to add to its surroundings. Sunflower methods generate concrete results. Think: the software works, the vaccine is effective. Research scientists and technologists are classic sunflowers.
Bougainvillea are about generalization. They have thick, interlocking vines; their blooms are shaped like their leaves. They are hard to separate and carry with you. They spread in the direction of sunlight and nutrients, without a set path or plan--they’re hard to put in a vase. As such, they are good metaphors for creative problem solving: to understand A, you must be aware of B and C. Designers and creatives are good generalists.
The world needs both sunflowers and bougainvillea. In the last 6 decades, if you wanted to get ahead in your career you were advised to specialize. Specialists with deep expertise made the big bucks. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Vikram Mansharamani suggests that “the specialist era is waning” and “the future may belong to the generalist.” Paradoxically, he points out that “research has proven that experts are less accurate predictors than non-experts in their area of expertise.”(!) How so? Apparently, when you want an accurate prediction, it’s better to “turn to those who know many little things, draw from an eclectic array of traditions, and accept ambiguity and contradictions.” I.e. Generalists.
It’s a classic example of Trend/Countertrend. Nothing can substitute for depth of analysis and knowledge, and there’s proven value in specialization. But generalism is a special talent. In today’s world we have an endless array of complex information, fragmented in multiple ways, developing faster than ever. Therefore, it is increasingly important to have generalists around to make sense of it all, to see the Big Picture.
One could ask: “What specifically does a generalist do?” I found some interesting answers to that paradoxical question on a blog called “Creative Generalist.” I’ll paraphrase here:
Generalists are good at observing everything and seeking out a particular something that is most relevant for specialists to pursue. They can hunt down and recognize more different possibilities. They connect the dots and then present complex information succinctly. They take simple insights and find transcending applications. They make worlds collide and then harness the collaborative energies. They bring empathy and a unique understanding of humanity that is much needed in our world today.
If you’re a generalist, continue dabbling, stay curious, and be skeptical of “the one right answer.” For all you sunflowers out there, here’s a little life advice from Ernest Hemingway: “Live the full life of the mind, exhilarated by new ideas, intoxicated by the romance of the unusual.”
Oh, and don’t forget to stop and smell the roses along the way.