In defence of the career generalist

If you're going to work until you're 80, you really need to avoid getting pigeon-holed.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 30 Jul 2019

"I spent 30 years at McKinsey. In the course of my career there, we went from a situation in which all the most significant people were self-defined generalists and specialists were viewed as second class citizens, for want of a better term, to a situation where it was completely reversed. By the time I left, those who called themselves generalists realised they were dinosaurs."

Nick Lovegrove belongs to that dying breed, he admits it. His career has been defined by variety, spanning the private, public and non-profit sectors. Formerly managing partner at McKinsey in Washington DC, currently director of the Brunswick Group in New York, he’s worked as a senior advisor to Tony Blair’s Strategy Unit, helped to found TeachFirst, sat on the board of the Royal Shakespeare Company and has now written a book on the value of breadth of experience.  

The trend towards increasing specialisation isn’t just limited to management consultants, he says. Across all sorts of business, the narrow has triumphed over the broad. To an extent it’s inevitable, the consequence of the logarithmic proliferation of information in the digital age. But this profound trend also has roots in something far more fickle.

"The drumbeat narrative of so much management thinking and the advice industry is around the word focus. The 10,000 hours of Malcolm Gladwell has become the conventional wisdom. More recently Peter Thiel has talked about the need to do one thing, as early as possible, to avoid the mediocrity of breadth. People just bought into that," says Lovegrove.

It creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more specialists rise, the more they promote other specialists, and the more talented young people scramble to find their niche out of fear of being labelled a jack of all trades, and master of none. In the US, Lovegrove points out, only 7 per cent of students now major in the liberal arts. Over here, the push for STEM has arguably left the arts and humanities equally sidelined in higher education.  

"I studied ancient history not technology, but you can get a long way just by being curious and asking questions." - Martha Lane Fox

There is a danger in developing too narrow a focus, however. "It’s not a bad thing to specialise. I just think specialisation is necessary but not sufficient. The pendulum has swung too far and there are real consequences. A big reason the financial crisis happened was that we were in thrall to very focused, narrowly-oriented specialists who knew only what they saw and saw only what they knew," says Lovegrove.

On an organisational level, it can lead to unsustainable situations where only the CEO is actually able to understand the whole business. On a personal and career level, it can lead to you being pigeon holed.

The problems with this are fairly obvious. You will find your long-term prospects increasingly dependent on short-term decisions you made when you were younger, as it becomes harder and harder to get out of your niche. You may well be very good at this niche, but what if there’s more you can give? What if you just get bored?

"We think this is who I am, this is what I do, I can’t do anything else. This isn’t just about people with limited capabilities, who are constrained because they can only do what they do. I think there’s a cadre of incredibly talented people at the top of the tree, who are similarly trapped in a self-defined or defined-for-them specialty," says Lovegrove.

When you consider that in the future we’ll need to work until a much greater age, while at the same time specialist skills are emerging and becoming obsolete again at a rate of knots, that’s not a situation you want to find yourself in.

This doesn’t mean of course that the wide gate of generalism is for everyone. To an extent, it’s about temperament: boredom threshold, risk tolerance, our willingness to be seen to be ignorant on a new topic. But it does mean that generalism – in the sense of not being pinned down to one thing – though it may not be as attractive an option in the short term, is a long-term source of much-needed career resilience.

But wait, the specialist says. How can you be resilient if you’re only moderately effective at anything? Professional life is not a pub quiz – there’s a reason depth is valued.

Depth is useful, concedes Lovegrove ("if I’m counselling people, the first question is why would anyone call you for your help. Particularly in the early stages of your career, it’s because you know something they don’t"), but ought to be balanced with breadth of experience.

"It’s a little like a bellows. There are times in your life when you say you’re too narrow, you need to open up the bellows, and there are other times when you say I’m too broad, I need to close the bellows and really focus."

With that combination, you can develop a reputation for being broad minded, flexible and adaptable. "There’s a lot of inherent robustness in a person with breadth of experience and expertise, who can be thrown into the deep end and float," says Lovegrove.

Achieving that breadth, when the prevailing career currents pull you to a narrower and narrower focus, can be tricky. One option is to take bold, deliberate steps to keep your options open – changing roles, firms, sectors or even careers.

The big switch: How to pivot your career

If that ‘serial breadth’ sounds too risky to you, the alternative is to try to find variety wherever you can find it. You could be a surgeon who also plays in an orchestra or goes bird-watching, an accountant who plays tennis and sits on the board of a charity, or even a marketing executive who devotes 10 per cent of their time to running a business. All sorts of experience can be relevant and useful.

Beyond use, keeping things broad could just be good for you. "I started thinking about this from a very professional standpoint, but increasingly I’ve also come to think it relates to how people achieve fulfilment in their lives," says Lovegrove.

You know what they say about the spice of life, after all. (Hint: it isn't cardamom.)

The Mosaic Principle: The Six Dimensions of a Successful Life and Career, by Nick Lovegrove, is published by Profile Books.

Image credit: Petr Kratochvil


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