The Generalist's dilemma
In an increasingly complex world, how much specialisation do you need
Playwright Robert Greene infamously referred to his peer, William Shakespeare as “Johnny do-it all”, in an oblique reference to Shakespeare being an actor turned playwright. Jack of all trades, master of none is an oft derogatory phrase today. The original, “Jack of all trades” didn’t actually carry negative connotations, until ‘master of none’ got added much later. In Middle Age England, several trades had a jack of some sort – lumberjacks, steeplejacks and Jack-tars (sailors). These jacks were often master craftsmen in their chosen trades.
Recently, Elon Musk, the world’s riches person added fuel dilemma when he said in a tweet :
“I strongly believe that all managers in a technical area must be technically excellent. Managers in software must write great software or it’s like being a cavalry captain who can’t ride a horse!”. This, coming from a business man whose span ranges across diverse domains like space travel, electric cars, tunnel transportation and social media – to put it mildly – was odd.
Today, most of us can feel this dilemma. At our best, we experience the imposter syndrome of not knowing what’s the right thing to do. At our worst, we toot half heard knowledge & managementese. There are as many specialisations today as ambiguous problem statements. Often I don’t even have the right word to explain that feeling of trying to keep pace.
This is the generalist’s dilemma – “How much specialisation do you need to contribute effectively?” The answer, as I now understand, is both – not much and a quite lot. But it is certainly not what you think.