Have you heard the saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none”? It refers to those who have knowledge in many areas and are considered a generalist, but they don’t necessarily have the depth of knowledge in a single area which would make them an expert. The term “Jack of all trades” could be a compliment, but when “master of none” is added, the phrase quickly becomes a pointed jab.
We often think of masters as those who have their eyes on a field or a particular set of knowledge. They’ve tirelessly focused for decades until they have finally become experts. They take the “correct” path, working their way up through levels of education or slowly up the corporate ladder until they reach the top of their game, the epitome of success, becoming highly respected masters in their field.
Career is Often a Meandering Path
But what about the others? What about those who struggled to settle on a career early in life, or worked in different areas for years after college? While some people have had their sights on the career of their dreams since they were young children, others of us took a more meandering path, spending time in a variety of fields before finding something that fit our personalities and gifts.
In his book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” author David Epstein makes a solid case for the benefits of being a generalist. It’s a fascinating study of some of the world’s best and brightest people across a variety of domains, ranging from artists to CEOs. Their varied career paths gave them unique skills perfect for solving problems when no one else could.
3 Benefits to Adding Generalists to the Team
We need the experts, those who have deep knowledge and mastery honed through decades of study and practice. But, Epstein argues, we need the generalists too. There are several reasons generalists are often the best person for the job.
1. Generalists solve problems
Epstein discusses “wicked” and “kind” environments. Wicked environments are those with no rules, those which one walks into with no experience or knowledge. Feedback may or may not be given. “Kind” environments allow users to learn from experience and patterns, the “practice makes perfect” type of environment. “In the wicked world, with ill-defined challenges and a few rigid rules, range can be a life hack,” states Epstein. Range allows people to approach problems from a unique perspective, refining the problem itself and finding solutions that may go unseen by those who are mired in their own knowledge of the field.
2. Generalists are innovative
Epstein goes on to state, “Modern work demands knowledge transfer: the ability to apply knowledge to new situations and different domains.” Epstein cites several situations in which those with no knowledge in a particular field used their background in other areas to solve problems that even the most qualified experts could not solve.
3. Generalists are flexible
With the knowledge they’ve gained over their lifetimes, generalists can approach problems from unique angles, using analogies and experience to find connections between fields. They think outside the box because they aren’t aware of the box at all; they haven’t learned the boundaries or the “right” answers, so they are free to use their knowledge to come to new conclusions.
The Correct Path is Different for Everyone
When you’re in the middle of a career change, unsure about your next steps, or if you’re qualified at all, remember that you’ve been learning all your life. You may not be an expert in one field, but the knowledge you’ve gained from all the places you’ve been before is tucked into your brain, waiting to be leveraged when the opportunity arises.