Perhaps more than anyone in my career, David Epstein validated my thirty years of decisions that resulted from becoming a generalist.
Let me start from the beginning:
My brother is my best friend and one of the smartest and best-educated people I know. Mike is a chemical engineer and simultaneously earned an MBA from MIT and a master’s in chemical engineering. Insane. He’s a Master Six Sigma Black Belt practitioner, and his forty-year career has included such iconic brands as Chevron, Tropicana, Kodak, Amazon, and others. Mike has served as the CEO of two Amazon-owned companies. The guy is darn smart and clearly uber competent. And that’s my problem.
I’m the opposite of Mike.
Although we look strikingly similar, our intellects and aptitudes couldn’t be further apart, and our parents—fine people—reinforced these differences at every turn, meaning they validated his choices and questioned mine. Simply stated, they were scared. Mike was a specialist, and Scott was…well, they couldn’t tell. David Epstein calls it a generalist and validated my strategy (calling my career decisions a “strategy” feels less haphazard than it likely was—but let’s go with that for this blog).
It boils down to two types of professional paths: specialist and generalist.
I have friends who are pediatric oncologists, anesthesiologists, accountants, hedge fund managers, hairstylists, and digital designers. I also have friends who are “in sales,” “in marketing,” and “in real estate.” I don’t use quotation marks to diminish these roles—heck, I’ve spent 30 years in this group. But being a generalist is night-and-day different than being a specialist. I’m guessing once an airline pilot, always an airline pilot. Once an endodontist, always an endodontist. But generalists move back and forth between fields like my wife moves back and forth between liking me (easily and without rationale is the answer to both).
Here’s the big idea: people who decide to become specialists usually do so early in their careers and thus reap the commensurate awards earlier than most generalists (while they’re paying off massive student loans). Generalists, if they’re like me, worry for twenty years if what they’re doing will ever amount to anything (that’s something my parents would have said). That pretty much sums up my entire career. I had titles, lots of them, some even fairly impressive, but if you asked me to describe my skillset at a dinner party, it would be painful.
As I listened intently to his research findings and personal conclusions, it hit me. Like an anvil to the head. Everything I’ve been doing, learning, and building over the past three decades as a generalist has now provided me with an unprecedented array of options in my early fifties. Writing. Speaking. Interviewing. Collaborating. Negotiating. Leading. Listening. Creating. Partnering. Positioning. Every one of those words is a real role, and they all pay.
Hey look, Ma—I made it! Being a generalist does pay off, but the road was longer and very uncertain. But look how much I learned along the way and all the options I have now. I’ve moved, at least in my mind, from being dispensable, to truly becoming indispensable.
Specialists, congrats and kudos to you! I’d say don’t change a thing. It’s working and delivering big!
Generalists, congrats and kudos to you! I’d say don’t change a thing. It’s going to work and will deliver big. Just have faith in yourself.
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