I have frequently heard the advice that you should decide, sooner than later, whether you want to be a generalist or a specialist. The former meaning you acquire “overall knowledge” on diverse topics whereas the ladder requires you to choose one topic in which you gain in-depth knowledge. This advice does not prove to be particularly useful for multiple reasons. To begin with, this black and white thinking assumes that one is better than the other, that they are mutually exclusive and irreversible. Consequently, the meeting rooms fill with one-track specialists (or professional idiots) who hold on to their proclaimed fields of expertise. The so-called specialists develop a loyalty towards their dominating tasks and thoughts, causing them to feel irresponsible or inadequate to discover additional fields to specialize in. How many times have you been in a situation where you contacted a colleague about a certain topic and they failed to be of any help because that question doesn’t precisely fall within their day-to-day tasks? What about the kids who love so many different sports but must choose one because their parents want them to be the best in that one sport? How many times have you been asked whether you’re a numbers person or a words person? It’s time to break these limiting thought patterns that falsely promise higher success or efficiency. There is no need to work either on your strengths or on weaknesses. By remaining curious we can do both and beyond.
More often than not, people discover new interests, talents and passions throughout their life. Why shouldn’t there be more examples of great athletes, who are number crunchers and write poems? If we look back in history, many terrific thought leaders serve as great examples. For instance, great Italian Renaissance man Leonardo Da Vinci was an artist, scientist, writer, anatomist and engineer. His diverse ideas have lead to vast contributions and innovations we benefit from to this day (more than just Mona Lisa and The Vitruvian Man).
What if we don’t have to choose between being good at either math or languages? Or between being the IT girl versus the Marketing girl? If we shift our mindsets and embrace multiple disciplines, we can benefit personally and professionally. Investing in interdisciplinary collaboration will increase our collective knowledge, problem-solving abilities and innovations. Good-bye generalists, so-long specialists. Hello general specialists, welcome special generalists.