The Rise of the (Evolved) Generalist
By Mark Ridinger
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”
I have to say off the bat that evoking Steve Jobs quotes is getting a bit too in vogue for my taste, but when one finds the essence of what they want to communicate encapsulated so well, resistance is futile.
I don’t know if Jobs ever uttered the term ‘evolved generalist’, but his quote on creativity and what type of person is likely to create and innovate—and how—is exactly what I wish to communicate here, and serves as the cornerstone of my talk (“Looking Up and In: The Creative Mind and Process”) and my case for the rise of the Generalist.
I’ll skip the de rigueur Wikipedia definition of generalist (and specialist for that matter), and state my definition: The Generalist (as coined in the 21st C) is an individual uniquely suited (due to interest, background, experiences, and personality archetypes) to bridge silos of domain expertise (typically inhabited by specialists), in such a way as to produce novel ways of looking at a problem, or determining a new approach or method, all of which produces a beneficial solution, product, or idea.
Note there are several parts to this definition:
- ‘Bridging of silos’: Specialists tend to be caught in their own silo of domain expertise. Bridging silos helps to break free of enculturation and conformity bias;
- ‘Background of diverse experiences and interests that have been reflected on’: Creative archetypes are typically polymaths and autodidacts– so is the Generalist;
- ‘Adept at synthesizing something novel, the end product of which…
- Has an actual benefit and value’.
I want to be clear here: I am not arguing that there is no need for specialists. I am, however, making the case for generalists— that’s a big difference. If I had some bizarre malformation of, say, my pinky– some disorder that occurred in only one out of 10 million people– what do I want to do? I want to go to the pinky specialist! The surgeon that has operated on more Bizarre Pinky Disorders than anyone else, and written papers in Science: Pinky, and lectured to the Royal Society of Pinky Surgeons and so on. But if I am in the C-suite of an enterprise, or on the board of directors of a startup or any institution that is trying to thrive in the current climate of rapid change and disruption, I want some Generalists on board—and an evolved one even better! Need someone to churn out the best bug free code in the shortest time—get a specialist; want someone to help create a culture of innovation, avoid the pitfalls of dogmatic thinking, and connect disparate dots—get thee to a generalist! And there has never been a greater need in our history—perhaps urgency—for said folks.
Even the experts’ (a type of specialist) presumably safe bastion of forecasting is under siege. For example, Phillip Tetlock’s analysis of over 80,000 predictions made by 284 professional forecasters found that experts are less accurate predictors than non-experts in their area of expertise! Given our poor ability to predict the future, who will thrive and add more value to an organization—the specialist, entrenched in his world view, umvelt, or silo, or the silo spanning generalist–the polymath and (dare I use the term) renaissance (wo)man? Generalists, with (by my definition) their broad and horizontal interests are better evolved to connect ideas and experiences; they are more likely to look for new encounters (both of the physical and intellectual world) and reflect on them—allow them to incubate and gestate—and reap the rewards of the epiphanies of the creative mind.
In a piece that appeared on Harvard Business Review blog (“All Hail the Generalist”), Vikram Mansharamani opines: “The time has come to acknowledge expertise as overvalued. There is no question that expertise and … logic are appropriate in certain domains (i.e. hard sciences), but they certainly appear less fitting for domains plagued with uncertainty, ambiguity, and poorly-defined dynamics (i.e. social sciences, business, etc.).”
Machines already trump us in chess and Jeopardy!. Finding connections and associations across disperse domains of knowledge and disparate ideas are still a human bastion—it is the seed of creative thought. “Knowledge work” was the growth sector of the last century, slowly now being replaced by machines. “Creativity work” is rising. Here, the Generalist rules.
Table 1. Attributes of the Specialist v. the Generalist
I’m taking a page from author Nassim Taleb’s use of tables to highlight thematic differences in a conceptual framework (e.g. Antifragile). And yes I take some poetic license here! My thesis: Creativity is to the 21st century what data was to the 20th, and the Generalist has the edge over the Specialist in this regard.
|20th Century||21st Century|
|Knowledge worker||Creative worker|
|Left brain||Left and right brain|
|Convergent thinking||Convergent + divergent thinking|
|“Reductionistas”||Respects holism (“holophiles”)|
|Cognitive stress||Cognitive ease|
|All nighters||Hypnagogic states/sleep|
|Being “productive”||Wei wu wei|
|Looking down and out||Looking up and in|
|i (The Machine)||I (The Self)|
|FOMO||FOFOMO (fallacy of FOMO)|
|Semantic Network: Steep||Flat|
|DIKW||Wisdom = IQ (intersect.) CQ (intersect.) EQ|
Copyright © 2014 Mark HT Ridinger
Growing scarcity due to increasing global demand is going to require innovation at a pace and scale we’ve never experienced before. The parent:child attributes of creativity are brilliantly outlined in the Attributes of a Specialist / Generalist list above. As Dr. Ridinger’s describes in his Georgetown University address, this list is the star map — the opportunity lies in looking up at the list and then taking the time to ponder how to connect them into meaningful constellations of knowledge. Those who embrace this mindset early will be the first to move from 20th Century Industrial Revolutionist to 21st Century Creationists.