The first time you meet someone new one of their opening questions is likely to be “What do you do?” The answer to which is only ever expected to be singular.
Why, in such a supposedly enlightened and forward thinking society, is it assumed that we can only do or excel at a single thing? Isn’t this limiting our natural potential by conditioning everybody to think they can only be good at one thing?
Based on your answer to the above question, you are likely to be stereotyped and pigeon holed by your newly met acquaintance, and will probably have to work very hard to convince them otherwise of your multifaceted personality.
Imagine you travelled back in time to Italy in the late 1400s to a grand social function and were introduced to Leonardo da Vinci. Would you break the ice with such a banal question as; “So, what do you do for a living?”
If you did, what would his answer be? “Oh, I’m a painter… and a sculptor, and an inventor and a scientist and an anatomist and an architect and an engineer and a mathematician and a botanist and a writer and a musician, why, what do you do?”
It would probably be easier to just classify him as a polymath, the true archetypal renaissance man or homo universalis!
However, in modern society, it’s difficult to comprehend that anyone like Leonardo could exist today. Perhaps it’s because our level of knowledge has moved on so much that it is so much harder to excel at numerous things, but perhaps society also doesn’t want us to or isn’t capable of accepting it.
More and More about Less and Less
I once attended a university lecture from one of my professors entitled “All about nothing”. His chosen subject was scanning electron microscopes and in particular the vacuum conditions required for them. He was becoming increasingly specialised, knowing more and more about vacuums (essentially nothingness), with his ultimate aim to know everything about nothing!
This certainly seems to be the way that society drives us, to slowly narrow down our field of expertise, while we know more and more about less and less until we become a specialist or guru in our micro field.
Being a specialist can have many advantages, it can also have significant drawbacks. While times are good you can probably command quite a high salary. However, if times change, or you just fancy moving on, then your specialisation may work against you as there will be fewer potential job openings, or you could price yourself out of the market.
Jack of All Trades
However, if you adopt the alternative approach and try to tackle a broad spectrum of activities, you’re invariably classed as a jack of all trades (master of none), which is not usually meant in a positive way.
It’s probably difficult to achieve the same proportionate level of expertise across the board as Leonardo did 600 years ago due to our rapid advancement in knowledge. But having a good practical working knowledge in a variety of disciplines should be considered a tremendous asset and not necessarily frowned upon.
Applying the 80/20 Rule
A jack of all trades doesn’t have to mean you are just mediocre at everything. While you can spend years learning all there is to know about a particular topic, you can probably learn 80% of what you practically need to know in 20% of the time. The rest becomes diminishing returns.
May be it then comes down to different levels of mastery. At what point do you go from being a specialist to a master to just plain mediocre?
Most projects traditionally involve numerous disciplines, which could include graphic design, product design, mechanical design, electronic design and software design, to name but a few.
Who would make the best project manager; the computer guru, the artistic product designer or someone with a good understanding of all disciplines, but isn’t a “guru” in any particular one?
Surely an ideal candidate would be our “jack of all trades”, who could communicate with all teams with a good understanding of the challenges they are facing, while retaining an overview of the complete project.
Innovation often comes from the cross fertilisation of ideas between disciplines. Wouldn’t it follow then that a person with a diverse background of knowledge would be better placed to see these opportunities and capitalise on them?
Leonardo was renowned for his inventions, but it was probably his broad range of knowledge across so many disciplines that inspired him and enabled him to visualise them as real possibilities.
Web design is a trade that doesn’t attract the same technical kudos as does say a computer programmer, or a graphic designer for example, but is considered a jack of all trades. After all, little Johnny in his bedroom can design websites with Microsoft Frontpage can’t he?
However, good web site design requires quality graphic design coupled with software programming, two skills that are usually considered at odds with each other. So not a job for a specialist, unless working as a member of a multidisciplinary team.
How many company leaders and entrepreneurs are specialists in a particular field. Not many I suspect. While Bill Gates might be a reasonable programmer, that’s not the reason he was the world’s richest man for so many years running. Microsoft is full of technical gurus, but Gate’s understanding of all aspects of the business is what got him to the top and kept him there for so long.
Specialist vs Generalist
So, which is your preference, do you want to know more and more about less and less and risk becoming too specialised and insular, or would you prefer to broaden your horizons and become a more rounded and flexible generalist?
After all, they say that variety is the spice of life, so would this lead to a happier and more contented existence, or is that just too much to hope for…
I had a similar view at university, i noticed that if i applied myself 99% to the task in had i could earn a relative grade of around 80%+. Conversely, if i followed other (innovative or otherwise) pursuits and devoted a mere 20% of my efforts to a university project i could average grades of around 60%. which i think we can agree is a much better return on an investment.
Perhaps ive missed the point.
I believe that a specialisation is something we can discover as we get older, but there is no place or need for it in a developing mind.
in that respect, those that do seek to gain the most depth from one particular area of interest are either obsessive to the point of insanity or well balanced individuals who simply fill their own little niche in the grand scheme of things.
The monkey and the giraffe.
-Hope all is well on the western front!
Richard, you are right on target with this one. When I studied for my MBA at Cranfield many decades ago, the aim of the programme was to make us all reasonably competent in all the critical business disciplines as well as specialists in a few areas. The idea is great, Harvard invented the concept (or at least made it a winner). However, upon graduation almost every prospective employer immediately checked what you did BC (before Cranfield), then when we were hired, they stuck most of us back into our old slots. End result, most of us got frustrated and more disatisfied than BC! It was even worse for graduates who came on company sponsored schemes – they really got stuck back in the old rut!
Great Post Richard,
I agree that having a good working knowledge of a number of subjects isn’t as valued as it should be. I’m lucky to be in a position at work where being ok at lots of things is a benefit and it gives me the chance to look after projects that cover all sorts of areas. I still get a nagging feeling sometimes that my knowledge in certain areas is less than other people have, but I need to remind myself that they only have that one subject to keep going!
Having said that, we try really hard to move people around so that they get experience of lots of different areas and we don’t force people to specialize in a particular field. Maybe consultancy firms like ours are the place where the jacks of all trades of the future can be developed 🙂
I do have some admiration for those who are determined to be the best in their particular field to exclusion of everything else. We definitely need people like that. On the other hand, if everyone was like that, we wouldn’t get the cross-fertilization of ideas that is required to push the world forwards.
I’ve always tried to broaden my horizons outside work. I couldn’t bear the thought of reading engineering books at home (as lots of my colleagues do). I’d much rather read books on politics, philosophy, psychology, biology and other areas of science and technology. I’ve found recently that podcasts are a great way to keep in touch with the latest developments in all these areas. I’ve got 38 podcasts on my iTunes list that I regularly listen to. With my commute, lunchtime walks and visits to the gym, I reckon that I have about 17 hours of listening time per week, so I can use that to keep up to date with everything from the US presidential race to the latest farming news.
I’ve always had the same attitude with sport as well. There are quite a few sports I’ve played in the past and with a fair bit of effort I’ve always managed to get to the level where I could play in the 1st team of my school, university or local club. Particularly in golf, I knew that, if I concentrated on that alone, I could get a lot better and move up a level. Even though part of me was interested to find out how good I could be, I was never prepared to give up everything else I was interested in.
I guess Tiger Woods has a different mindset to me!
Wow, a bit spooky that, I must have touched a nerve to stimulate such in-depth comments. Interesting as well as I really wasn’t sure about the post when I put it up as I thought I may just have been rambling on about a personal gripe. Just goes to show; you can’t predict things…
Thanks for the comments, it’s nice to know others think along similar lines.