“Jack of all trades. Master of none.”
The warning against being a generalist has persisted for hundreds of years in dozens of languages.
“Equipped with knives all over, yet none is sharp,” warned people in China. In Estonia, it went, “Nine trades, the tenth one — hunger.”
Yet, many of the most impactful individuals — both contemporary and historical — have been generalists: Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Arianna Huffington, Ben Franklin, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Marie Curie.
Are these legends just genius anomalies? Or are they models from which we can all learn?
My research over the past year shows that the latter is true. There is a surprisingly strong link between diversity of relationships and knowledge (being a generalist) and career success.
Many people fail to become successful generalists because schools and society tend to encourage focus on a single expertise. As a result, few ever develop the necessary skillset.
The good news is that with practice and some of the tools in this article, anyone can become a successful generalist.
The Fundamental Challenge Of Being A Generalist
Meeting new people outside of our current circles and learning outside of our expertise is simply hard.
It’s not only hard because it requires going outside of our comfort zone to learn a whole language and set of customs from scratch; it’s hard because it requires investing our time and energy in new areas that may not have an immediate payoff.
If you’re a marketing executive, it’s much easier to justify reading the latest marketing book than it is to read a classic book on evolutionary biology. Yet, reading that biology book might give you a completely novel idea that no one else in your field has.
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Here’s why eating Paleo will make you fatter…
Going cold turkey on your favorite foods is a recipe for disaster. It simply won’t last. And after a few days (or weeks if you’re extremely disciplined), you’ll be bored, frustrated, and tired of eating the same tasteless meals every day.
In confronting this challenge, we must embrace the paradox of the usefulness of useless knowledge as poignantly shared by Nobel Laureate, Richard Feynman:
“..throughout the whole history of science most of the really great discoveries which had ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.”
Here are six concrete strategies from some of the world’s top generalists (who also happen to be millionaire and billionaire entrepreneurs) to help you efficiently and systematically explore new areas…
1) Go Straight To The Data So You Can Form An Independent Opinion
Ray Dalio is the founder of the largest hedge fund in the world, Bridgewater Associates, which has $169+ billion under management. His approach is based on a set of fundamental principles, which he explains in a short treatise.
Core to Dalio’s philosophy is becoming an independent thinker rather than focusing on what you are taught by others:
You have to be an independent thinker because you can’t make money agreeing with the consensus view, which is already embedded in the price. Yet whenever you’re betting against the consensus there’s a significant probability you’re going to be wrong, so you have to be humble.
In other words, according to Dalio, the key to being a successful investor is finding when the consensus is wrong and having an independent opinion that is right.
The same principle holds true in other fields such as venture capital. Famous technology investor, Peter Thiel, selects the founders he backs in part by asking them what they strongly believe that no one else does.
According to Dalio, the first step to becoming an independent thinker is to understand reality deeply. In order to do this early in his career, he ordered all the annual reports of Fortune 500 companies and worked his way through the most interesting ones and formed opinions.
Warren Buffett took a similar approach. According to the book,Outsiders, he has kept up a habit of reading 3 annual reports a day for his entire career. When asked how to get smarter, Buffett once held up stacks of paper and said, “Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge builds up, like compound interest.”
2) Learn The Big Ideas In The Big Disciplines
Charlie Munger’s success as one of the world’s top investors and Warren Buffett’s longtime business partner did not come from having a laser-like focus on investment theory. Rather, he studied widely and deeply in many fields, including microeconomics, psychology, law, mathematics, biology, and engineering, and applied insights from these fields to investing.
Munger’s rules and quotes are excerpted from various talks that he’s given, which are featured in his book, Poor Charlie’s Almanack.
Rule #1: Learn Multiple Mental Models
“The first rule is that you’ve got to have multiple models — because if you just have one or two that you’re using, the nature of human psychology is such that you’ll torture reality so that it fits your models.”
“It’s like the old saying, ‘To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.’ But that’s a perfectly disastrous way to think and a perfectly disastrous way to operate in the world.”
Rule #2: Learn Multiple Models From Multiple Disciplines
“…and the models have to come from multiple disciplines — because all the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department.”
Rule #3: Focus On Big Ideas From The Big Disciplines
“You may say, ‘My God, this [learning so many mental models] is already getting way too tough.’ But, fortunately, it isn’t that tough — because 80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly-wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry very heavy freight.”
3) Spend Less Time Trying To Be Original And More Time Reading Widely
Charlie Munger famously stated, Emerson Spartz, 28, embodies this ideal.
He dropped out of school at 12, taught himself to speed read, and created his own wide-ranging curriculum. Spartz has now read thousands of books, for awhile even averaging a book per day.
Over time, Spartz developed theories on how to make sites go viral. He successfully tested those theories on Facebook Pages; many of which acquired millions of fans. He then progressed to testing his theories with media properties. Today, his company, Spartz Media, is a network of sites (like Dose.com and OMG Facts) with 45+ million visitors per month.
Spartz’s company uses a research and repurpose strategy. A proprietary algorithm finds trending articles with certain qualities and repurposes them for the site’s unique audience.
“In my experience,” Spartz says, “it is much faster and less risky to read more widely and repurpose what is already working, or has worked somewhere else than to attempt to come up with an idea that you think is original but actually isn’t.”
4) Look for Classic Ideas
While most people in our society put their attention into what’s new and popular, Jason Duff, an Ohio entrepreneur, does the exact opposite. In his real estate endeavors, this means finding historic real estate properties that are undervalued and restoring them, rather than building new properties.
This approach has helped him create hundreds of jobs in his community and build several multi-million dollar businesses.
Duff’s key insight is that wisdom – and value – can be found in the old. The Lindy Effect demonstrates this idea; for every additional day an idea or technology survives, it becomes more likely it will survive longer into the future.
While we tend to assume the newest releases and latest editions will be the most relevant, seeking out classic ideas that have stood the test of time often hold the most unique insights.
5) Find Clues of the Future in Today’s World
Famous science fiction author, William Gibson, once said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
Ryan Simonetti, co-founder of Convene, has built a team of 150+ employees through a unique approach of finding clues of the future in today’s world:
“As an entrepreneur, I’ve found a powerful approach to finding clues is looking for ‘edge cases’ (i.e., extreme users and early adopters of new technology) and then deeply listening to those users in order to understand their unmet needs,” Simonetti says.
“The toughest thing for anybody is to understand what it means to be truly objective and look at the world from someone else’s perspective. In my experience, the best way to do this is the ‘Ask, Observe, Engage’ approach, which is an integral part of design thinking:
- Ask. We use a Socratic approach of ask probing, open ended questions that really force extreme users to think thoughtfully about their responses. It’s all about the “why.”
- Observe. We physically observe the process they already use.
- Engage. We engage them as active participants in our creation process and make them part of it.
Bottom line: look for those edge case users that will define your business and learn deeply from them by asking questions of, observing, and engaging them.
6) Be Radically Open to New Ideas
Arianna Huffington started her career as an author, became a journalist, ran for governor, and ultimately founded one of the fastest growing media companies in history, The Huffington Post.
Changing careers and exploring new ideas means letting go of all the time you invested going down one path. It means reinventing your identity, building new relationships, and letting go of limiting beliefs.
When I asked what allowed her to be so radically open, she related it back to one concept — a “life audit” she did at age 40.
The exercise revealed to Huffington that many of the goals she had committed to in her head (learning German, becoming a good skier, etc.) simply weren’t getting done. Rather than continuing to stress over the goals she wasn’t achieving, she instead chose to consciously remove them from her list and focus on the goals that mattered most to her. This gave her more energy to pursue life-changing business opportunities on the horizon.
Research backs this up. Every day, each of us wastes valuable brainpower holding on to commitments we’ve made that are no longer realistic or important.
If you’ve ever killed yourself trying to meet an unreasonable deadline or shown up ridiculously late to a meeting instead of just rescheduling, you know exactly how much of an energy suck these inessential commitments can be.
“One of the best ways to open up your life to new possibilities is… not by adding new things, but by dropping things that no longer serve you,” Huffington said. “This not only means removing things you’re doing now, but shouldn’t be. It also means removing things from your mind that you think you should be doing, but realistically never will.”
Is It Better to be an Expert or Generalist?
So, expert or generalist?
Perhaps it’s not one or the other.
It’s time for a new model; one that considers the benefits of being a specialist and a generalist.
Perhaps, the winning formula is being what Orit Gadiesh, chairman of Bain (a multi-billion dollar consulting company) calls an ‘expert-generalist’. Gadiesh explains it like this:
“An expert-generalist is someone who has the ability and curiosity to master and collect expertise in many different disciplines, industries, skills, capabilities, countries, and topics and then:
- Recognize patterns and connect the dots across multiple areas.
- Drill deep to focus and perfect the thinking.”
The approach has differentiated Bain from its competitors and has propelled Gadiesh’s career.
Gadiesh goes wide by reading 100+ books a year including novels [in the language of the country she’s visiting] and books on physics, mathematics, history, biographies, and art.
Then, she goes deep by applying “cold, hard intellectual discipline”, and ruthlessly letting go of theories that she has fallen in love with, but that don’t hold up when examined with data.
Now Is the Time to be a Renaissance Person, Not 500 Years Ago
The traditional narrative is that being a generalist is something you could only do decades or hundreds of years ago when business and science were less developed; when a single scientist could serendipitously discover an amazing medicine like penicillin growing around mold and usher in an era of life-saving antibiotics.
This narrative is misleading to the point of being wrong.
Yes, scientific discoveries require larger teams on average, according to research by Brian Uzzi, a professor at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, who analyzed 26+ million scientific papers going back hundreds of years.
But the reason that teams are successful is not just because of more resources and deeper expertise; it’s also because those team members come from different disciplines and are able to cross-fertilize their insights into atypical, breakthrough combinations.
According to the discipline of scientometrics, the amount of academic research is doubling every 9 years and the number disciplines is growing exponentially. The same is true for the number of business industries.
What does this all mean?
As more business industries and scientific disciplines emerge, there are more opportunities to create breakthrough ideas by combining fields in atypical ways. We literally have the world’s knowledge at our finger tips.
It’s a good time to be an expert-generalist.
As a resource for this article, I put together a 13-page report you can download at no cost. It summarizes Ray Dalio’s very unique approaching to coming up with independent opinions that are true. I put it together because I didn’t see another summary anywhere else that was easy to comprehend or apply.