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The Secret Power Of The Generalist — And How They’ll Rule The Future


Despite the corporate world’s insistence on specialization, the workers most likely to come out on top are generalists—but not just because of their innate ability to adapt to new workplaces, job descriptions or cultural shifts. Instead, according to writer Carter Phipps, author of 2012’s Evolutionaries generalists will thrive in a culture where it’s becoming increasingly valuable to know “a little bit about a lot.” Meaning that where you fall on the spectrum of specialist to generalist could be one of the most important aspects of your personality—and your survival in an ever-changing workplace.

“We’ve become a society that’s data rich and meaning poor,” he says. “A rise in specialists in all areas—science, math, history, psychology—has left us with tremendous content but how valuable is that knowledge without context?” Context, he says, which can only be provided by generalists whose breadth of knowledge can serve as the link between the hard-won scientific breakthroughs (think the recent Higgs-Boson discovery) and the rest of the world.

Only by understanding the work within fields to the right and the left of your own can you understand the bigger picture, he says, whether you’re talking about a corporation (sales analysts understanding the supply chain as well as internal operations) or the world as a whole. “We’ve become so focused on specialization, but just as there are truths that can only be found as a specialist,” he says, “There are truths that can only be revealed by a generalist who can weave these ideas in the broader fabric of understanding.” He references the historian David Christian whose 2011 TED talk presented a “Big History” of the entire universe from the big bang to present in 18 minutes, using principals of physics, chemistry, biology , information architecture and human psychology. Generalism at work.

In other arguments for the rise of the generalist, consider this research from the University of Pennsylvania’s Professor Phillip Tetlock, as referenced in a recent Harvard Business Review blog post. Tetlock studied 248 professional forecasters over 20 years to determine whether experts or non-experts make more accurate predictions in their areas of expertise.

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