What if Generalist vs. Expert was a Mistake? [en]

[fr] L'expertise peut être alimentée par une connaissance exhaustive d'un seul domaine, ou par une connaissance approfondie de multiples domaines. Le généraliste a également une connaissance de multiples domaines, mais elle est superficielle. On a tendance à considérer que n'importe qui ayant des connaissances dans plusieurs domaines différents ne peut être un expert -- et c'est à mon sens une erreur. L'expertise n'est pas obligatoirement liée à la spécialisation. On peut être un expert dans de nombreux domaines -- un poly-expert plutôt qu'un mono-expert.

First of all, I urge you to go and read my friend Stephanie Troeth‘s article “The generalist’s dilemma“. We had a short chat a day or two ago about the difficulty we multi-talented people face making a decision about “what do to with our lives”. I touch upon this subject a little in my recent article “What Do We Call Ourselves?“, actually, but from a slightly different angle.

“Jack of all trades, master of none.” It rings in our heads like an accusation, or worse, a verdict. The message is clear: the more varied your interests, the more diverse your talents, the less authority and expertise you can expect to have in those areas. If you’re a generalist, then clearly, you cannot be the expert we’re looking for.

I think this way of thinking is (at least partly) mistaken. Even if my areas of expertise are varied, for example, I can be an expert on the question of teenagers and social media. I will be a different kind of expert than the person who devotes their career exclusively to this question, of course — but an expert nonetheless.

As Stephanie’s post shows very clearly, skills and expertise in various areas tend to reinforce and feed each other. An obvious example of that in my career (obvious to me, maybe not to everybody) is how my initial expertise in Indian culture and history of religions helps shape me as an expert of social media and online culture. Notice how I slipped the word culture in there? That’s the kind of “expert” I am in the field. I’m not the same kind of “expert” as somebody who has a marketing or business background.

I don’t want to discount the merits of specialization — but as a process rather than an end. My teacher at university used to tell us how important it was for us to specialize in one of the “major religions” our curriculum offered us: “if you have done it once, if you have once been through the process of acquiring deep expertise on one precise topic, you can do it again and again for others; if you just keep skimming the surface, you will never learn how to delve deep into anything.”

Does this sound in contradiction to what I’ve been saying above? It doesn’t to me. You see, I think there are two kinds of “generalists”:

  • those who have acquired expertise or specialized in a wide variety of subjects
  • those who touch upon a wide variety of subjects because they only ever skim the surface.

It is a fatal mistake to confuse the two of them. And maybe we need different names to distinguish between the two.

The idea that a generalist has “superficial understanding of everything” and can in fact only be jack of all trades, master of none, is what makes “generalist” a pejorative label — what makes people say “oh, we want an expert, not a “generalist”. What they maybe don’t realize is that some people who end up calling themselves “generalists” are in fact “poly-experts” (or “multi-experts”) as opposed to “mono-experts”.

The mono-expert builds his expertise on digging deeper and deeper and acquiring an exhaustive knowledge of his subject. He runs the risk of becoming blind to what is outside his specialty, or viewing the world through the distorted glasses of excessive specialization.

The poly-expert builds his expertise on digging again and again in different fields. In addition to being an expert in the various fields he has explored, the poly-expert is an expert as digging and acquiring expertise. By creating links between multiple fields of expertise, he avoids the pitfalls of excessive specialization — but on the other hand, he is often recognized as a superficial generalist rather than a kind of super-expert (because “you can’t be an expert in all those things, can you?”)

The generalist (superficial type) is the one who has studied “a bit of everything”. For lack of inclination, ability, or simply appropriate curriculum, the generalist has never gone through the process of digging deep enough to acquire proper expertise. Shallow understanding can be more dangerous than no understanding at all, and this profile is one that nobody actually wants to fit.

There might be more to investigate about the “pure/superficial generalist” profile’s assets, though — see “What Specifically do Generalists do?” on the Creative Generalist blog; but are we talking about the same “generalist”? Is this the right word to use here? Is my threefold typology leaving anything out? I feel like I’m painting an all-negative picture of the superficial generalist, and I’m not really happy with that. (For example, think of medicine, where “general medicine” — at least in French — is a specialty.)

In any case, framing the debate as “knows one thing = specialist” vs. “knows many things = generalist” completely misses the fact that the degree of expertise has little to do with the breadth of it. What’s important is if somebody has expertise or not, and that is not measured by the absence or presence of knowledge in other fields.

Expertise, for me, means that:

  • you know more (quantity) in that field than most people (you’re in the top n%)
  • you can make sense of what you know, and know what you’re talking about
  • you know where the limits of your expertise is
  • your bring value to others that is magnitudes above what the “average joe” with some hobby-knowledge of the field would

(This was off the top of my head and might need another post to be dealt with properly — defining expertise.)

For some people, expertise will be nourished by comparable expertise in other fields (poly-experts). For others, it will be nourished by exhaustive knowledge of a single field (mono-experts). Both are experts. It’s then a question of personal preference which one to be or hire. However, given the prejudices against generalists and “jack of all trades”, the latter is easier to market than the former.