Career insights: Five reasons why I think generalists will achieve greater career success than specialists
By Hassan Saeed
From prophets to philosophers, history is replete with examples of individual leaders who rose to prominence via zigzag career paths while gaining a wide spectrum of knowledge.
The idea that a career path is a single lane linear trajectory is something I never believed in. I was happy in F&B as a number two (an assistant HoD) when my GM asked me to set up the very first human resources office within the group. Back then we had liaison offices and personnel offices and changing over was a paradigm shift for all of us. A lot of my friends thought it was a bad decision to accept the offer as I was plunging into a sea of unknowns and could have been risky.
I never regretted that decision and never looked back, never turned down an offer to move horizontally to learn a new skill — went on a liveaboard for a year and segued into island administration for a brief period.
As a culture, we have a love-hate relationship with the diversity of knowledge attained by an individual and his usefulness to the community.
On one extreme is the common idiom ‘Fasmeeru kuriruh‘ meaning ‘a person who is good at everything’. When we grew up, I remember hearing this term being used to describe then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. He is still a very eloquent orator, a writer with a great sense of style, credible religious scholar, is still passionate about astronomy and poetry.
On the other hand, a ‘Fulhimadhu unguri‘ or ‘styrofoam bottle plug or cork’, is used to describe someone who can fit into many roles. Many of us wish to be referred to as a ‘Fasmeeru kuriruh‘ rather than a ‘Fulhimadhu unguri‘; how we come to hold one word in high regard and the other not so, I am not sure but we have had these concepts within our culture.
If we look back a few centuries, we had individuals with multidisciplinary knowledge. Characters like Boduthakurufaanu (a national hero and king) whose story is recorded in detail (it could well be fiction but most of the descriptions of livelihood as recorded were seen until recently in the island communities and are consistent with the writings of others). He was a great sailor, a warrior who trained abroad, had great knowledge of geography and people skills.
Recent examples of renaissance individuals include Mohamed Amin Didi, our first president who was a great example of a polymath and whose writings still bear witness to this fact. Many may not know that one of the books that he wrote was on cookery: ‘Karunayaa nulai kekkun‘, meaning ‘Cooking without tears’.
Generalists are more successful than specialists in securing top leadership positions
According to David Epstein, author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World, a great many CEOs have had diverse roles and tried many things before they became CEOs.
His recommendation is to try out many different things before you specialise in one area. Try to gain knowledge of many different subjects before going deep into one area or few areas.
He contrasts the developmental approaches of Roger Federer and Tiger Woods, two of the most successful sports personalities in our time, where Tiger went into early specialisation and Roger tried many different sports before he chose tennis.
Epstein’s genesis is that the world today, real workplaces are wicked learning environments where early specialisation and the 10,000-hour rule (this was popularised by Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers: The Story of Success) favours those excelling in sports and life situations which are kind learning environments (wicked and kind learning environments are a concept suggested by Robin Hogarth and colleagues).
No one’s passion stays linear throughout their life
Observe any child who is two, three, four and up to their teens; they will be quite curious and not afraid to inquire, explore and investigate.
As we grow up, we become less and less inquisitive and stop caring to find things out. Our thirst to know why grows weaker until we are weaned off experimenting with everything we see.
Many of the greatest leaders had multidimensional skills and knowledge.
Ibn Sina, the great Persian Polymath, started practising medicine at the age of 16 and started writing on many different subjects at the age of 21. These include mathematics, geometry, astronomy, physics, metaphysics, philology, music and poetry. Historians are still divided over whether Ibn Sina was a better physician than a philosopher, a suggestion that he was great at both.
Galileo and Da Vinci were multidimensional too.
Data science is already a big part of our lives
Data science is all about making meaning of numbers and information. It is an interdisciplinary domain where success depends on an individual’s ability to understand complex systems.
Algorithms will drive a lot of the information we use daily. The extent of intelligence of the systems that these algorithms will depend on how well those developing these systems know about a variety of different things and their ability to apply the knowledge holistically.
Glassdoor lists Data Scientists as the third in the list of best jobs in America for 2020. Number one on this list is Front End Developers, another multidisciplinary field that requires psychology, design and economics among many others.
Robustness and adaptability is essential in a VUCA world
We live in volatile times where things change at breakneck speed. If we want to keep up, we have to stay whole and be able to adapt to new realities. Many of the jobs that we find today, especially those that have a lot to do with technology, did not exist 20 years ago.
Today, an individual may be required to upskill, reskill and multi-skill several times in just 10 to 15 years.
One of the best lessons we can learn during this pandemic is that anti-fragility as a concept should be built into careers as well. Risk mitigation should be considered at a personal and individual level, so that shocks like these can be absorbed with minimal damage.
Pervasive and ubiquitous everyday technology requires multiple skills to be able to use them most effectively
Mobile phones and social media has made information sharing as democratic as humans have ever imagined. Anyone with a connected mobile device can communicate instantly with the rest of the world.
Personal branding is a big thing. Effective personal branding starts with a clear understanding of how these social media platforms and tools work.
Even those with PhDs in a particular field need to understand how best some of these tools can be used. Successful profiles on platforms such as Instagram and Facebook require the user to understand behavioural sciences, visual arts and psychology to attract traffic and engagement.
My wife is a leading teacher at a school and she uses many different applications for graphic designs and presentations. This may not be a core function of her job, but the frequency with which this is required makes one think that a deeper understanding and greater mastery of graphic design and visual arts will make her become more independent and self-sufficient.
Domain specialists working alone in their labs or offices do great work but because they work in isolation, are not able to collaborate with other domain specialists whose work could be mutually beneficial to both specialists.
My brother-in-law is training as an endocrinologist and we often discuss how personal productivity in an organisational context overlaps with the studies in hormonal changes we go through during the day.
Both fields observe hormonal activity in the body throughout the day. The difference is that the organisational psychologist is working to optimise productivity while the endocrinologist is trying to advance medical understanding in order to promote wellbeing and treat medical conditions. This is discussed in detail in Daniel Pink’s recent book, When: The Scientific Secrets to Perfect Timing.
The best understanding of the human psyche and the greatest clarity to why we do what we do comes in the intersections of many different domains of knowledge. That is why human resource managers are looking for T shaped individuals who have a range of many skills and one speciality. Better still, Pi (two specialities) shaped and comb-shaped (more than two specialities) individuals are always in greater demand. This is known as the ‘breadth of knowledge’.
Note: This op-ed was originally published on LinkedIn by Hassan Saeed, a highly experienced hotel/resort manager from the Maldives who currently serves as the Resort Manager at Dhigali Maldives, a luxury resort in the northern Raa atoll. To view the original article, please follow this link.