Why Generalists And Late-Bloomers Have An Advantage

We’ve heard about the magic of practicing 10,000 hours. It’s the number of hours needed to excel as an athlete, musician, or any other type of expert. Early focus and specialization is the conventional wisdom associated with greatness. Getting that head-start can make a difference in a lifetime of success.

However, in David Epstein’s book, Range, he debunked that wisdom and shows that early-specialization is the exception, not the rule in achieving greatness.

In the VUCA (Volatile, Unpredictable, Complex, Ambiguous) world in which we live, generalists are excelling over specialists. Generalists try many different things, have diverse interests, and often discover their desired path later in life. Because they don’t focus on one area, they tend to be more nimble, creative, can see connections and apply their learning from other experiences.

I have two ideas from Range that I want to highlight. One is for parents and young adults. The second is for “seasoned” leaders, who have had years of experience and considered experts.

For parents and young adults:

I’m including parents in this audience because we are often the ones pushing our children to excel in a sport, school, or other types of specialty. We have a culture that focuses on finding early success. Bottom line, we all need to relax a bit and allow space for experimentation.

  • Worry less about finding the perfect job out of the gate and spend more time sampling different experiences to discover what is the best fit. We don’t know what is the “perfect fit” unless we’ve explored options.
  • Embrace having a variety of experiences and the opportunity to consider different perspectives. Openness to explore various perspectives guards against biases in decision making and judgments.
  • We live in a knowledge economy, which translates to employers seeking talent for conceptualization and knowledge creation. A broad range of experiences enables employees to make connections and create innovative solutions.
  • Don’t feel behind. “Compare yourself to yourself yesterday, not to others.” Remember, we all progress at different rates.

Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, said, “We discover the possibilities of DOING, by trying new activities, building new networks, finding new role models.” We learn who we are in practice, not in theory. 

If you need more convincing of this idea, check out the One Job a Week Project, where Sean Aiken worked 52 jobs in 52 weeks to discover his passion.

For seasoned leaders:

Epstein tells a story about the 1949 Mann Gulch fire in Montana. The fire began to chase firefighters uphill at an alarming rate of 11 feet per second. The crew foreman ordered the men to abandon their heavy tools and sprint to safety. Only two followed his orders. The rest refused and were slowed down as they ran clutching their axes and saws – those 13 men died. This same type of behavior is well-documented with Navy seamen, fighter pilots, and other high-risk professions.

These stories illustrate our human nature of clinging on to what we know. We tend to use the tools that have worked in the past.

  • When we are experts in a particular area, (a.k.a., specialists), we can become accustomed to using a specific set of tools and strategies and fail to imagine alternative approaches.
  • Generalists are used to moving beyond the tried-and-true solutions and are adept at moving into new areas of learning.
  • In times of stress or crisis, we tend to fall back on the old methods. The problem is that the circumstances are often unique. Which, by the way, maybe why the situation is now a crisis. Relying on the application of tools and approaches we know best does not always account for an unfamiliar challenge.

I love the quote from the psychologist, Karl Weick, “Dropping one’s tools is a proxy for unlearning, for adaptation, for flexibility.” If we are unwilling to drop our tools and be open to new ideas, we can lose our credibility by taken actions with serious consequences.

Whether you’re early in your career or a seasoned professional, remember to experiment, be open to others’ ideas, and be flexible in your approach to meet what is required in the situation.

Martha Duesterhoft is a Partner with People Results. Follow her on Twitter @mduesterhoft or connect via email at mduesterhoft@people-results.com