Olson’s Observations

Technology. Innovation. Science. VC. Media. :: by Eric Olson

Generalists v. Specialists: What Happened to the Renaissance Man?

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Soon after FeedBurner was acquired by Google and we were all settling into our new roles at Google I began to think a lot more about acquisitions and why a lot of them don’t work (not because ours wasn’t of course but because I was thinking about what we could do to make ours work). There are many theories around this topic but one that struck me was the obvious nature of a large company versus a small, nimble start-up.

Particularly I was thinking about generalists versus specialists.

At larger companies the vast majority of people are specialists. They have a particular function and do not cross into other areas of the company much if at all. On the other hand, at start-ups (and smaller companies) most of the employees and founders are generalists. They are the proverbial jacks of all trades and maybe even renaissance men and women. They cross boundaries all the time. In any given day they could be doing their job in business development but also working on the product, a marketing idea, customer support or a host of other things.

After an acquisition these generalists are moved into a really large group of specialists very quickly. Culture shock sets in soon after the move and the generalists try to find their way. The generalists have to figure out roles inside the new large entity that make sense to them. This is hard to do since the roles are so specialized leaving the generalists in a pretty tough spot.

It seems that generalists simply aren’t valued in large corporations with very specialized workforces. However, they really should be.

Top notch generalists are the folks that intuitively “do” all of the management buzz words. They “think outside the box” and “shift paradigms” because they have a diverse set of interests and knowledge and the drive and passion to tackle new things as they come along.

In a knowledge economy generalists should be more valued than ever. It is increasingly important to innovate, create new lines of business expand internationally and think broadly about businesses and this is what the generalists are well suited to.

Ah, but what if generalists really are valued highly? In fact, what if they are valued so highly that generalists are usually the people running large companies (or at least the leaders that are best at leading large companies)? That actually seems to be the case according to Tim Ferriss.

Ferriss wrote an article for the Huffington Post the other day about why it is good to be a generalist (I was a little bummed since this post has been brewing for months and he beat me to the punch but he made some great points that helped push my thinking further along.). In the article Tim touches on his top five reasons to be a jack of all trades. Here they are:

5. “Jack of all trades, master of none” is an artificial pairing.

The 80/20 rule is in effect. Essentially Ferriss argues that 20% of any given skill separates an expert/specialist from a novice. He also says that being a novice doesn’t mean your are mediocre. In his view (and mine) generalists take things (skills, etc.) up to, but not passed, the line of significantly diminishing returns.

4. In world of dogmatic specialists, it is the generalist who ends up running the show.

CEOs aren’t necessarily better at any function in the company than any of their VPs or more specialized staff. However, they do have a broad range of skills that allow them to see the connections between different pieces of the business. Also, due to their broad skill set they are more easily able to innovate and shift on the fly if needed. The best CEOs are top notch generalists.

3. Boredom is failure.

Lack of intellectual stimulation, not lack of money or “things”, is what drives us to depression and emotional issues. Being a generalist means you never lack for intellectual stimulation.

2. Diversity of intellectual playgrounds breeds confidence instead of fear of the unknown.

Generalists tend to empathize with a broad range of issues, people, conditions and also appreciate more of life. They also pursue things due to passion and not because of obligation.

1. It is more fun, in the most serious existential sense.

Totally agree on this one. Learning about lots of things in life and finding some where this is an opportunity for you to build something that changes the world is a great way to go through life. Ferriss also argues that specialists spend their lives making imperceptible changes to things. That said, I would argue that we need specialists to do that since the small things add up and ground breaking technologies and ideas can emerge. I get his point though but he is a tad harsh on the specialists.

Anyhow, point 4 is of course the one I alluded to above (CEOs are usually great generalists) but the other points add a lot to the discussion.

Bottom line, there is nothing wrong with being a generalist. In today’s world a lot of people might say otherwise but we should look at those folks that are driving innovation and holding the top seats in business as an example of what generalists can do.

Side note: Ultimately we need both generalists and specialists of course. Diversity is what makes this world so great. Everyone is needed to keep things moving forward and to innovate.

Written by Eric Olson

October 4th, 2007 at 6:00 pm

Posted in Business

4 Responses to 'Generalists v. Specialists: What Happened to the Renaissance Man?'

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  1. Eric,

    This post came at a perfect time for me. Last night I was thinking too myself about my skillset being too generalized and it had gotten me down a bit. I have so many interests that I have felt has been keeping me from master any 1 of them to perfection. This post has made me realize that I don’t need to be a master anyone of them and should just keep on moving in my generalist direction. Thanks for the indirect boost of confidence in my skillsets.


    Jeff O'Hara

    4 Oct 07 at 7:08 pm

  2. I agree that being a generalist is a better way to live one’s life. However, in business AND in life, there will always be a NEED for specialists. I’d much rather have my code written by a person who specializes in that specific code, just like I’d rather have my fires extinguished by a fireman, not a busboy.

    Whether or not you want to be a specialist depends on your personality and the topic at hand. We all gravitate to specific areas of expertise, but some of us are quite comfortable drilling very deeply into one niche.

    Different solutions for different people. The most important thing is finding the spot that works for you.

  3. Totally agree Justin. My point was more along the lines of “being a generalist is OK” rather than “being a specialist isn’t OK.”

    Ferriss is really harsh on specialists and I made sure to note that I don’t see eye to eye with him on those harsher views.

    It absolutely takes all kinds to make the world go round. Variety is the spice of life, right? :-)

    Eric Olson

    5 Oct 07 at 12:28 am

  4. Eric,

    Recently found an excerpt from Ted Nelson’s “Dream Machines,” which outlines a method for the learning process of generalists. Rather than using “jack of all trades, master of none,” Nelson demonstrates how inquisitive individuals can develop expertise on an array of subject areas (he questions categorization in other parts of the book though).


    Hope everything is going well at BuzzFeed and good luck speaking at BlogWorld.


    Andy Angelos

    18 Oct 07 at 11:16 am

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