Generalise, don't specialise
July 12, 2019 2:28 AM   Subscribe

Why focusing too narrowly is bad for us . The 10,000-hour rule says intense, dedicated practice makes perfect – at that one thing. But what if breadth actually serves us better than depth?
posted by smoke (39 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
Employers want specialists. Even the examples given of people successfully finding work in new or unrelated fields to where they started are just adding a second specialism, really. Nobody seems to want generalists for anything.
posted by Dysk at 2:48 AM on July 12 [9 favorites]


In our company, we generally make people rotate into a different role after 2 years in the same job, there's lots of good reasons for it.

1) If you're going into management, you need to know how all areas of the company work, not just one area.
2) Even if you're not going into management, we need to train someone who IS, so you need to move to another role so someone else who will benefit from that training can do that job.
3) Spreads the knowledge around and prevents the situation of "oh this guy has done the job for the last 10 years and he resigned and we're all screwed"
4) Fraud prevention

Rotations only slow down once you get into senior management, it was generally found that once you get to the C-Suite having a strict 2 year rotation was wildly counterproductive.

... at least that's what I tell myself when I play all sorts of computer games - from MOBAs, to FPS, to 4X, to RTS, to CCG, to ARPG, and RPG, even MMO.
posted by xdvesper at 2:56 AM on July 12 [13 favorites]


"The 10,000 hour rule" is right up there with "we only use 10% of our brain" and "all doctors agree that you should drink exactly eight glasses of water a day" in terms of being a made-up statistic. And 143% of people agree with me!
posted by Kibo at 3:11 AM on July 12 [42 favorites]


Employers want specialists.

Large employers want specialists. I've been a generalist working for very small employers in the IT sector for 25 years. You might argue that I have 10 or 15 specialities. I'm pretty sure I'm not quite good enough at any of them to say that. Employing a dozen people to do the things I do would be financially impossible, so here I am.
posted by pipeski at 3:21 AM on July 12 [19 favorites]


I've always interviewed as "Not a Specialist". It's quite helpful because the places that want specialists wouldn't be all that happy with me, nor I with them.

Though I also have a little spiel about bridging epistemic groups that I pinched from teaspoons PhD in interdisciplinary philosophy.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 3:25 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


In my experience, even small employers generally want specialists. They contract one person to do their IT and another to fix their doors and locks. They don't tend to hire people who are decorators and locksmiths to do both. At best, you're looking at something kunne the same person doing admin and running the website, or something along those lines. Nobody hires a general handyman or anything any more. When they're hiring for IT, they don't care how good or not you are at locks, or welding, or cleaning. When they're hiring a cleaner they don't care how good or not your are at locks, welding, or IT.

I have literally never seen a job listing that wasn't for one thing, or tops two or three very closely related things.
posted by Dysk at 3:29 AM on July 12 [4 favorites]


When they're hiring for IT, they don't care how good or not you are at locks, or welding, or cleaning. When they're hiring a cleaner they don't care how good or not your are at locks, welding, or IT.

This feels a little like a straw man to me?

I don't think the article was suggesting that doctors should also be repainting the hospital or fixing the MRI machine. It's suggesting that within their field they might do better if they were more of a generalist and understood medicine more broadly.

I also think that assuming what businesses advertise they want and what would actually serve them well are the same doesn't make sense. Surely one of the implications of the article is that banks would have been better off with less-specialized employees and more generalists who might have an eye on systemic risk.
posted by thegears at 3:35 AM on July 12 [17 favorites]


I also think that assuming what businesses advertise they want and what would actually serve them well are the same doesn't make sense. Surely one of the implications of the article is that banks would have been better off with less-specialized employees and more generalists who might have an eye on systemic risk.

Fully agree, but until HR and hiring practices also agree, the more impressive degree of specialisation will get hired instead every time.
posted by Dysk at 3:37 AM on July 12


I don't think the article was suggesting that doctors should also be repainting the hospital or fixing the MRI machine.

I'm not suggesting that either. In suggesting that there isn't actually won in the modern world for people who aren't specialists. Maybe less narrowly specialised than is the norm many places right now would be an improvement, but there isn't actually room for people to be generalists.

Ask me how fun it is trying to get work when you're pretty good with a small amount of experience in several dozen unrelated fields, but any graduate or bloke off the street with any "real" background in any of them will get hired ahead of you every single time. Ask me how fun it is being a temp somewhere and bit being allowed to touch something you could totally do, at no extra cost to the struggling small company, because they insist on hiring in an expensive expert instead, who either does the same thing or something that is a worse solution or expensive overkill for the needs at hand.

Being a generalist sucks.
posted by Dysk at 3:43 AM on July 12 [9 favorites]


In my field this is completely untrue and terrible advice.
posted by dazedandconfused at 4:07 AM on July 12


It's weird -- the word "generalist" is used several places in this piece, but what he is actually mostly talking about isn't generalism but late specialization. I mean, Maryam Mirzakhani -- I knew her reasonably well. She was not a generalist; she was someone who was fully devoted to pure mathematics. Epstein writes that she "dreamed of becoming a novelist and instead became the first woman to win math’s most famous prize, the Fields Medal." Lots of mathematicians, indeed most, have outside interests. Lots of us tried other things before devoting ourselves to mathematics as a career. We were not trained for it from toddlerhood like Tiger Woods. But we're still specialists!
posted by escabeche at 4:11 AM on July 12 [17 favorites]


Fully agree, but until HR and hiring practices also agree, the more impressive degree of specialisation will get hired instead every time.

I guess I wonder if this is industry-specific? I 100% believe your experience but it definitely doesn't match mine.

In either case, I think one thing that never gets accounted for in these discussions is that, in many lines of work, there's a lot of learning on the job that happens. Finding someone who already "knows everything they need to" is often a fallacy in that there's lots of informal or formal process or business specific techniques to learn.
posted by thegears at 4:12 AM on July 12 [7 favorites]


I work in a small law office, where the litigation attorneys must be generalists because we don't have enough staff for anyone to specialize. I got the job because I'm flexible - the boss knows he can throw me into almost anything and I'll be able to perform acceptably. Of course, it kind of sucks when I run into someone from a huge law firm who only does this one thing that I've never heard of before, but it certainly keeps things interesting. I sometimes think I'd like to specialize, but then again I wonder how boring it'd be to pick just one of the dozens of things I do, to the exclusion of everything else.
posted by 1adam12 at 4:29 AM on July 12 [7 favorites]


My employer likes specialists, so long as they specialize in multiple specialities.
posted by Foosnark at 4:30 AM on July 12 [8 favorites]


Not only is the 10,000 hour myth made up, he is using a lot of examples that don’t support his thesis. The bank example is an argument that the departments within the bank (or the systems in the bank) should not have been so siloed. I don’t understand how a “generalist” person could have solved the issue of one system not talking to the other system. And Federer is definitely an example of a late specialist. Would anyone say he isn’t a tennis specialist now?

I read a lot of business books and articles and generally they are intellectually lazy and too broad to be useful at all. At best, you get a good kernel of an idea or feel better about your own choices. I’m definitely a late specialist, and I think my early experiences were useful to help me find something that suited me much better, but I am such a specialist now that I can barely think of another type of work that would make sense. Of course, there is such a thing as a general manager in business, but that’s basically specializing in managing people and setting goals.
posted by rainydayfilms at 4:42 AM on July 12 [3 favorites]


I guess I wonder if this is industry-specific? I 100% believe your experience but it definitely doesn't match mine.

If yo, this is across lots of unrelated industries. I'm not in any one industry in terms of my work history or applications. That's kind of my point.
posted by Dysk at 4:52 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


My employer likes specialists, so long as they specialize in multiple specialities.

Translator here. My specialties/niches are something like "film/TV", including subtitles, pre/post-production scripts, marketing materials; "dubbing", meaning I can write for voice actors & lip sync (and yes I am a voice actor at times); "cloud computing", which includes technical, marketing, and user guides; "general marketing", which includes every stupid PPT deck you've ever seen; "electric cars", which means no, not the technical stuff, it's the dealer rental contracts, the user documentation, and all kinds of ancillary randomness, damn people write a lot of crap about electric cars; "art/cultural/prose", which means I know how to match the emotional tone of emotional writing & do my homework on obscure things; "religious", meaning I know my way around liturgy and theology.

I have others, but those are the ones that generate the most work.

Now that I'm old enough to be something of a low-grade silverback in the translation circles where I'm known, people ask me to do review/LQA (language quality assurance), usually just 'cause I'm the oldest one in the loop. I cannot count the number of times where I've gone in, been like, "Yo, according to what I know about this other niche, this don't make no sense, should we fix it?" I've actually become really good at making this case when I need to. Typically, once I do and the client agrees something is wrong, they ask me to fix it, and sometimes ask me to put together teams of other translators to take on huge multi-person jobs, and then of course since it's all internet-based, handle payment across 90 jillion international borders & work out tax obligations for all these freelancers. There just aren't accountants who specialize in 20 countries at a time. I had to learn it myself.

Now I'm getting hired as a consultant to help other companies set up LQA processes. You should see what I can do with mashing Excel, macros, and HTML into a usable vendor quality database. Learned entirely on the job through kludging together other people's ideas so that clients could have a fair way to judge my own quality, then that of my subcontractors ("if the macro says my error rate is above 3%, you can pay half, and that goes in the contract"). Now I have to learn to teach other people how to do it and how to enforce the standards so that they're not a useless or needlessly confusing toolkit.

So apparently my specialty is that I know a second language (that I don't even have a degree in).
posted by saysthis at 5:11 AM on July 12 [2 favorites]


Being a generalist sucks.

Salary-wise, for certain definitions, I'd agree. Actually being a generalist vs. advertising yourself to employers as a generalist are two different things though, yeah?

I mean, I'm in the same boat - I did a little bit of everything early on and have been chronically underpaid since. Spinning that employment history into a narrative with my education has at least kept me from being unemployed so far.

But at some point it really hit home that, as long as I can maintain a modest salary in the thing I came closest to specializing in, being a generalist not only makes my actual job easier and more satisfying for me, it also means my real quality of life within that modest salary is better and more satisfying, because I learned how to prep a meal and set up a server and sharpen a knife and wire up an outlet.

If I weren't in a dual-income household, I'd be in terrible financial shape, nevertheless. But I don't regret generalizing, I just lament a society where the social and utility value of a task or skill often has nothing to do with how/if it's remunerated.

Finally, TFA is about as substantial as a Malcolm Gladwell piece, which is to say not particularly.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:12 AM on July 12 [5 favorites]


Salary-wise, for certain definitions, I'd agree. Actually being a generalist vs. advertising yourself to employers as a generalist are two different things though, yeah?

I guess, but it's hard to see the "I'm a better, more rounded person" benefits when you can't pay rent.
posted by Dysk at 5:14 AM on July 12 [5 favorites]


I was gonna come in here and plug a book about this very subject, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World . Then I 'read the damn article' and see it's from the author, and the article is just an adapted chapter. So consider this a hearty "seconded!"

I made a note on the kindle for one particular line that I want to get tattoo'd on a bunch of people's foreheads:
"Overspecialization can lead to collective tragedy even when every individual separately takes the most reasonable course of action."
posted by DigDoug at 6:11 AM on July 12 [3 favorites]


the 10,000 hour myth

Why was this so quickly adopted into the canon of received ideas? One reason, I think, is that a lot of people are invested in the motivational concept that there is no such thing as talent - there is only hard work! And that is, sadly, just not so. I mean, there are many guitar players who worked at playing guitar as hard as Jimi Hendrix did. Did they become good? Yes, of course. But they did not revolutionize the entire idiom by their early 20s. Some people are basically just touched by God, and no amount of effort will convert you into one of them. Where the motivational/life-coach mindset is right is that it is a huge error to use that fact as an excuse to keep from exerting yourself to the utmost to develop your potential.
posted by thelonius at 6:19 AM on July 12 [3 favorites]


I'm a generalist for whom it has started to pay off -- not in big money (sadly), but in interesting, rewarding work and opportunities to do different things. For a long time I felt like a total failure, though, compared to the people I knew from college who graduated and went straight to work in their field. I took a different path, and I've had a series of abrupt transitions, a few dead ends that at least gave me some funny stories, and now something approaching a stable career that is only possible because I am bringing such an odd mix of experiences and knowledge.

Part of what I do now is to help manage a bunch of technical specialists, and one of the interesting learning curves for every new hire is that the nature of our work means that everyone on the team has to generalize somewhat. For example, maybe you are the engineer, but unless you understand and can partly do the work of the biologist and the geologist, and vice versa, the three of you aren't going to be able to collect useful field data or develop a robust analysis. That's not how people are usually taught in school (especially technical grad school), and it often isn't how people conceptualize their specialist career path, but at least in some settings it is really necessary.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:24 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


In marketing, being a generalist has been really helpful for me. I do digital strategy, content strategy, marketing automation, social media and community management; I write ad/website/blog copy, work with designers to create print pieces for events or direct mail, and project manage everything from the production of a promotional video to the logistics of our presence at a trade show. I know SEO and Google Analytics and AdWords and the hell that is Facebook Ads Manager. As a senior manager I do high level strategy work, but also am the one writing and laying out an email and hitting "send" on an email blast or copy-editing a guest blog post or magazine article. I work for a non-profit, and support 4 different departments covering membership recruitment/retention, certification, fundraising, and public policy/advocacy.

Marketing is the department that usually knows everything or almost everything that is going on (because it all needs promotion), so on top of our work we are expected to be connectors, making sure departments are talking to each other and aligning their efforts. I end up being involved in a lot more program/product management and operations discussions than you might think.

And honestly, it's been my experience that employers want you to have even MORE skills. They want you to be able to design (print and web) AND write AND code AND do video production AND manage social media AND do corporate communications/PR. Then again, my career has always been in non-profits so maybe it's different in the corporate world.

(By the way, neither of my degrees are in marketing, although the focus of the non-profit where I currently work is in the same field as my graduate degree. Even in undergrad, although I didn't degree-hop, I did change my mind 3 times about how I wanted to specialize, ending up specializing in nothing.)
posted by misskaz at 7:20 AM on July 12 [2 favorites]


Employers want specialists perfect candidates molded for the job, who can start on day one with no training, and at about 1/2 the pay that they should get. Whether that's a specialist or a generalist depends on the job and the organization. But more likely you'll see an add for "We want someone who is highly trained in X, but also can do Y [which is really unrelated but we're too cheap to hire someone else]."

/completely cynical about capitalism

I do see a lot of what I call "credentialism": employers claiming they want specific skills, but really what they want to see are the credentials associated with those skills. Even if you can do something, if you don't have the certificate, it may not count.

Once in a job, I think that being someone who picks up new skills easily can be a real asset. In my position, I've learned to how to do simple programming, use user-unfriendly specialist software, design infographics and make ersatz constituent record management systems using just an excel workbook - only the specialist software even fits into my job description. I happen to like learning these things, but Dysk is right that if I needed to find a new position, the fact that I have no credentials would make it a challenge. My current supervisors have encouraged me to get credentials just because it's something for my resume.
posted by jb at 9:45 AM on July 12 [7 favorites]


"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects." --Robert Heinlein
posted by JDHarper at 9:54 AM on July 12 [3 favorites]


I guess I wonder if this is industry-specific? I 100% believe your experience but it definitely doesn't match mine.

Mine either - for example, in the public service, generalists are often an asset - lots of people are needed who know a little bit about everything and who can work between the specialists. Most politically focused jobs (either direct or via lobbying or associations) are filled with generalists. In the NGO field (where I do my work primarily) or as a consultant, a broad range of experience is generally speaking an asset as you often can't employ enough specialists and thus need people who can adapt.

That said - one thing I have noticed is it's good to be a generalist with tangible, in-demand skills. Excellent statistical analysis capabilities, project management skills, strategic planning, change management, being able to provide concrete examples of times you were able to specialize for results matter. If you get stuck in an amorphous administration/coordination vacuum (a lot of jobs are in this vacuum) I can imagine it's a lot harder in the job market.
posted by vermouth at 10:07 AM on July 12 [3 favorites]


The exact sense in which we think of generalization/specialization really does matter here, and I'm sure varies a lot by industry and even specific role. And of course the overall crappy nature of job descriptions and postings (and salary structures) matters.

I'm in software/IT, but I have a biology degree, went to law school, played lead guitar in a touring band (after not touching a guitar till age 19), taught a bunch of people how to ace the GRE and LSAT, and now have a 20+ year career in software despite the fact that at age 27 I was working in a bookstore and had never even used Excel, much less learned HTML or programming. That sort of broadening over time did not give me a big nest egg at age 30, but it made me a better person and I feel like I've really experienced life. It's also not because I'm super smart or something; I just like learning.

Within my industry, people *definitely* overvalue deep knowledge in certain sub-areas. For example, a job listing might say "must have 5+ years C# and Angular" but unless you're hiring someone to teach those things to everyone else, should probably say "must have programmed enterprise applications in some language or other and had to think about scalability, security, and testing. Must work well with others." Once you take a job, you rarely rewrite your whole app in a new language, so after 5 years whatever new fancy frameworks and languages have come out are going to be a big mystery to you unless you have no other hobbies. So the software world is full of people whose last job change was before noSQL databases were a thing and who have not used AWS but instead used VMWare. Would I hire a SQL Server and classic ASP master into an AWS/Postgres/whatever team? Totally.

I guess I'm saying that "I write software that works and that people like" is all I'm ever looking for in a team member. And as far as people having skills outside software/IT, they often make the best employees. Some of my rock stars have had degrees in film studies or English.

Percent of software people who need to be able to write clean code that's well organized: 100%
Percent of software people who need to be able to explain things to other people in a simple way: 100%
Percent of software people who need to be able to write documentation that doesn't suck: 100%
Percent of software people who need to be able to empathize with the users: 100%
Percent of software people who need to know a bubble sort from a quick sort algorithm: 2% maybe?

Anyway ... in my life, people with many skills are more flexible and seem to learn new skill X better. But given how a lot of companies reward people, it can suck to be a generalist :-)
posted by freecellwizard at 10:07 AM on July 12 [2 favorites]


I can do all of those things, Robert Heinlein. But I know people who can do them all better than I. Generalization is for dabblers.

Having said that, as a old-time professional programmer, I know a lot of stuff about a lot of things that aren't strictly programming tasks, like timezones and font design and the ins-and-outs of various types of government accounting. A good programmer is always learning. Maybe that's the secret: specialize in learning new skills.
posted by SPrintF at 10:10 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


If I never hear that Heinlein quote again until the sun dies its inevitable death it will be 1 billion years too soon.

I work in an industry that nominally requires and broadcasts specialization, in that if I tried to move even a fraction of an inch outside of my niche, employers would pitch my resume into the trash without blinking. But in practice, on this most recent project alone I have had to take crash courses in three areas which, just 10 years ago, would all have had entire *departments* dedicated to them, and now have a mere fraction of my day's attention.

It's fucking bullshit and a nightmare, burn it all down and sign me up for that hashtag insect life.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:32 AM on July 12 [6 favorites]


Once you take a job, you rarely rewrite your whole app in a new language, so after 5 years whatever new fancy frameworks and languages have come out are going to be a big mystery to you unless you have no other hobbies. So the software world is full of people whose last job change was before noSQL databases were a thing and who have not used AWS but instead used VMWare.

Welcome to my current job hunt nightmare world!

And then when I complain about it, everyone asks why I'm not learning every new technology, for free, in my spare time. I've been doing this for roughly 18 years and I still don't understand people who code for a living AND as a hobby.
posted by frogstar42 at 10:48 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


If I never hear that Heinlein quote again until the sun dies its inevitable death it will be 1 billion years too soon.

Agreed, though I quite liked this version of it from a recent thread.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 11:31 AM on July 12 [2 favorites]


I just saw a job posting paying $21,000 requiring a bachelors degree so fuck most employers and what they want. Very pessimistic about ever having meaningful work.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 1:53 PM on July 12 [3 favorites]


"The 10,000 hour rule" is right up there with "we only use 10% of our brain" and "all doctors agree that you should drink exactly eight glasses of water a day" in terms of being a made-up statistic. And 143% of people agree with me!

Well, sure. Forfty percent of all people know that.
posted by invitapriore at 3:23 PM on July 12 [2 favorites]


Bit of a wider view including why generalization has problems too.
posted by blue shadows at 7:56 PM on July 12


I do see a lot of what I call "credentialism": employers claiming they want specific skills, but really what they want to see are the credentials associated with those skills. Even if you can do something, if you don't have the certificate, it may not count.

YUPPPPPPP. I've had a nightmare of jobhunting for a decade because of this. I'm in arts/culture/media/community, which you would think would be more amenable to generalists, but every damn time it's "you don't have specific enough experience" even though I could do the job and then some. I only ever manage to get really short contracts where I go above and beyond in my roles (and even now get asked to do talks about it) but trying to parlay that into a stable longer-term job has been impossible because "we don't know how we fit in your career trajectory" or "you seem so busy we don't know where we fit in". HIRE ME AND YOU WILL BE MY CAREER TRAJECTORY GOSH

And this is across every industry. Even day-job places won't talk to me. That I'm not white and not "young" anymore to be worth giving even an entry-level job probably doesn't help (I was severely hamstrung by my bridging visa and I'm now trying to make up for lost time but it's a slog).

I'm now studying Accounting and Bookkeeping because a lot of admin jobs want very particular credentials in that, and at least I'm getting a Government sponsorship for it, but I doubt it'll help. They'll probably want a CPA because everyone wants stellar employees despite not wanting to pay them all that much. I'm also mulling over ending the job search entirely and just focus on being a Gigging Artist (since I'm effectively already doing this by circumstance despite not earning anywhere near a living wage, which is why I want a a stable job in the first place) - but yesterday, after a frustrating week of being forced to do extra cultural competency & admin work for a film shoot beyond my lead actor role, I asked to be compensated for my time; after pushing back over and over, they CANCELLED THE WHOLE SHOOT. Which would have been today. So I'm not even sure that pathway is gonna work out for me now.

I'm a generalist largely by circumstance, and yeah I do generally function better as such, and it's been an asset to the companies that recognise it enough to hire me. But getting there is a traumatizing terrible slog.

(I feel like this may be a regional thing too. Australia's way more obsessed with credentials and doesn't value practical experience too highly. I was getting more interviews while in the US even for stuff beyond my pay grade, but I couldn't work out a visa in time.)
posted by divabat at 8:50 PM on July 12 [2 favorites]


If I never hear that Heinlein quote again until the sun dies its inevitable death it will be 1 billion years too soon.

Evergreen.
posted by aspersioncast at 10:54 PM on July 12


I mean not to derail any further but Heinlein was simultaneously pithy and horrid and we don't need to pretend he was anything other than a fairly smart but also racist and sexist and often generally horrid dude who was good at selling marketable pulp fiction. "He was a better writer than L. Ron Hubbard but basically a similar asshole" isn't exactly redemptive.

And actually Heinlein is way better than that, occasionally. But the bad stuff makes the good stuff feel thin.
posted by aspersioncast at 11:00 PM on July 12


Though I also have a little spiel about bridging epistemic groups that I pinched from teaspoons PhD in interdisciplinary philosophy.

And how would I go about finding this online so I can cite it myself?
posted by DancingYear at 5:07 AM on July 14


employers claiming they want specific skills, but really what they want to see are the credentials associated with those skills.

Oh goodness. If you're advertising for someone with 10 years experience but you're still demanding that they went to a bullshit Ivy League school and you still want to see their transcripts? Then what you really want is a pedigree, not a worker.
posted by 1adam12 at 6:45 AM on July 14 [1 favorite]


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