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Future of Education: The Rise Of The Generalist

Startup life is often typified by a fundamental lack of resources. 

By: Adi Gaskell, Contributor


 Entrepreneurs typically lack the money to do what they need to do, but perhaps more importantly, their skeleton crew often struggle to cover the full range of tasks required when growing a business.  It typically results in members of the founding team performing a range of roles, and so it’s perhaps no surprise that research from the University of Notre Dame found that generalists are a valuable asset for any startup to have.

What is perhaps interesting, however, is that while this broad experience is invaluable from a practical perspective, it seems to be significantly undervalued by VC investors, who typically preferred to back startups where the founding team had deep, rather than broad, expertise.  This appears to be a mistake, as the data suggests those startups founded by generalists tended to have a broader revenue stream, and operated higher up the value chain.

“If a founding team does have a wide range of prior experiences, they can improve their odds by launching their new business in faster growing or highly turbulent marketplaces where data shows that potential investors will strongly value their background,” the authors say.

More innovative

There is also much to suggest that generalists are more innovative.  Research suggests that the majority of innovations today build upon previous work, or in the R&D lingo, is recombinative.  As such, people who have a broader array of interests are more likely to be able to spot things from one domain that could be applied in others.  This is evident in entrepreneurship figures, as data suggests that migrants are disproportionately more likely to be entrepreneurs than native people, and a big reason for this is that they are able to apply the norms from their homeland to a fresh environment.  Similar phenomena is evident in the world of open innovation, where challenges are often solved by people operating outside of their core specialism.

Generalists are also better equipped to the changes in the market which are increasingly rapid.  In a world where we are likely to not only live longer, but work longer, London Business School’s Lynda Gratton predicts a multi-stage life is set to replace the traditional study-work-retire existence we’ve known for over a century.  This will require people to adapt and change their skills throughout their life, and having a strong general skillset provides you with many more transferable attributes with which to pivot your career around.

Given these clear benefits, you might think that generalists would be in high demand, but just as with the VC example from earlier, the opposite is often the case.  For instance, in Eastern Europe, it’s often said that if you have seven trades, the eighth one is poverty, whereas in South Korea, it’s said that a man with twelve talents has nothing to eat for dinner.  It reinforces this notion commonly aired in the anglosphere, that a Jack of all trades, is a master of none.

Fit for the modern age

Such sayings were often born out of the same industrial era that spawned Adam Smith’s famous paeon to specialisation in The Wealth Of Nations.  It’s a belief that a T-shaped approach to knowledge was the best, because you needed deep expertise in a particular domain in order to thrive.  It’s a philosophy that made tremendous sense when the pace of change was relatively slow, but that’s no longer the case.

In organizations, we prize characteristics such as versatility and resilience as they enable them to weather the winds of change more successfully.  Cultivating a generalist skillset is a great way to do that, and indeed schools such as the London Interdisciplinary School are looking to cultivate just such a mindset.

Author Waqas Ahmed outlines a number of ways you can help cultivate such a mindset in his recent book Polymath: Unlocking the Power of Human Versatility.

  • Understand yourself – The ideal state is to reach a point where talent and/or capacity meets passion and/or desire.  It’s when these intersect that true success lies. It’s likely to be reflected in idealism, nonconformity and intense curiosity.
  • Be curious – Curiosity is not something that is always unleashed however, and indeed, many of us do our best to bury it as we enter adulthood.  If we can untap this innate desire to bridge what we know and what we want to know, it can take us in so many fascinating directions.
  • Nurture your abilities – In my previous article, I highlighted the growing trend for allowing employees to flit about the workplace, participating in an array of different projects.  This is a great way of preventing oneself from being pigeon holed and allows your skills to flourish across their full spectrum.
  • Actively cross boundaries – Chris Anderson (of TED fame) famously highlighted how the ability to switch intellectual disciplines is incredibly valuable in terms of innovation as it creates something writer Leonardo Mlodinov refers to as ‘elastic thinking’.
  • Connecting the dots – The ability to connect dots from different spheres was something lauded by no less an innovator than Steve Jobs.  Alas, it’s something he believed many of us actively avoid doing. Excessive specialisation results in us having too few dots to actually connect.  As John Hagel says, it’s at the edges where innovation typically occurs, so don’t be shy of finding yours.

Hopefully by now you are a little bit more appreciative of the benefits general knowledge can bring to your career and to your organizations.  The stigma attached to the concept is slowly melting away, and a number of formal and informal methods are emerging to help you develop your ‘M-shaped’ knowledge.  There’s no better time than the present to start unleashing your full mind and spirit, and hopefully the tips above will give you some pointers to get you started.

If you loved this article–our ‘Future of’ series will explore new topics released weekly every Thursday–stay tuned!