When discussing the animal kingdom, each creature resides on a species scale of generalists to specialists. Specialist creatures like the koala bear can only survive on an extremely limited set of conditions: diet (eucalyptus), climate (warm), environment (trees). Generalists, on the other hand (think mice) are able to survive just about anywhere. They can withstand heat and cold, eat your organic breakfast cereal or seeds and berries foraged in the wild.
As a result, specialist species thrive only when conditions are perfect. They serve a very specific purpose within their particular ecosystem and are extremely adept at navigating it. However, should those conditions change—as a result of nature or, more commonly, an outside force—specialist species often become extinct. In contrast, mice can move from spot to spot on the globe, adapt to different cultures, diets and weather systems. And most importantly, stay alive.
In a professional setting, employees operate on a similar spectrum. We are either specialists (not just a historian, but a historian of Civil War powder muskets) or generalists. In recent decades, particularly as the American workforce has moved towards technology firms, specialists have become a hot commodity. In Silicon Valley, for example, employers wage wars for much-coveted technical engineers and coders who build the search engines and social networks we value so highly.
This makes sense: once again referring to nature, environments with more competition breed more specialists. Rainforests, for example, are chock-o-block full of diversity and competition for survival, which results in hundreds of thousands of highly specialized species. Silicon Valley, New York City and most of the other highly-productive, highly-competitive business landscapes, operate similarly. Instead of countless species of spider, the modern workforce has become a highly specialized mass of MicroNuclear Physicists, Fiber Optics Engineers and Java Developers who all function brilliantly when conditions are perfect.
But what happens when the ecosystem shifts?
Despite the corporate world’s insistence on specialization, the workers most likely to come out on top are generalists—but not just because of their innate ability to adapt to new workplaces, job descriptions or cultural shifts. Instead, according to writer Carter Phipps, author of 2012’s Evolutionaries generalists will thrive in a culture where it’s becoming increasingly valuable to know “a little bit about a lot.” Meaning that where you fall on the spectrum of specialist to generalist could be one of the most important aspects of your personality—and your survival in an ever-changing workplace.
“We’ve become a society that’s data rich and meaning poor,” he says. “A rise in specialists in all areas—science, math, history, psychology—has left us with tremendous content but how valuable is that knowledge without context?” Context, he says, which can only be provided by generalists whose breadth of knowledge can serve as the link between the hard-won scientific breakthroughs (think the recent Higgs-Boson discovery) and the rest of the world.
Only by understanding the work within fields to the right and the left of your own can you understand the bigger picture, he says, whether you’re talking about a corporation (sales analysts understanding the supply chain as well as internal operations) or the world as a whole. “We’ve become so focused on specialization, but just as there are truths that can only be found as a specialist,” he says, “There are truths that can only be revealed by a generalist who can weave these ideas in the broader fabric of understanding.” He references the historian David Christian whose 2011 TED talk presented a “Big History” of the entire universe from the big bang to present in 18 minutes, using principals of physics, chemistry, biology , information architecture and human psychology. Generalism at work.
In other arguments for the rise of the generalist, consider this research from the University of Pennsylvania’s Professor Phillip Tetlock, as referenced in a recent Harvard Business Review blog post. Tetlock studied 248 professional forecasters over 20 years to determine whether experts or non-experts make more accurate predictions in their areas of expertise.
After collecting more than 80,000 forecasts he concluded that when seeking accurate predictions, the non-experts were the best bet. It’s better, he said, to turn to those who “know many things, draw from an eclectic array or traditions and accept ambiguity and contradictions” than so-called experts. Relying on a single perspective, he found, was problematic, even detrimental to predicting an accurate outcome.
Why? Quite simply because a single-minded person can’t predict variables they don’t know anything about.