5 Reasons to adapt a Generalist Learning Style

It might feel like aspiring to be a generalist is an unworthy endeavour. The saying “jack of all trades master of none” can come to mind. In Estonian the saying cuts even more to the core — “Nine trades, the tenth one — hunger”. When working from these assumptions generalists are often perceived as people who quit, are easily distracted and don’t know what they stand for.

However, in the current landscape there are numerous advantages to having a generalist approach to learning. You need only look around you and notice that Narrow Artificial Intelligence has largely become ubiquitous while General Artificial Intelligence is now seen as the Holy Grail and next level of AI.

But lets not get side tracked and lets bring this back to humans. Before I give you my reasons to adapt a generalist learning style, let’s consider this quote from Daniel Cole, the Director of Design at Quora, in which he highlights that learning isn’t a zero sum game:

Any learning comes with opportunity cost. Learning Python might very well take up time that you would otherwise use for studying, say, product management. This is true, in theory. But in practice, most designers I know, including myself prior to joining Quora, are not learning at their maximum rate. I have spent much of my career solving the same design problems over and over again with no substantive personal growth to show for it. I don’t think my situation is unique.
But even if you were learning at your maximum rate, the opportunity cost argument actually works in favor of the multi-disciplinary approach. Design and its component practices are like any other craft: you can always develop a deeper familiarity with the minutiae, asymptotically approaching mastery. But this is a process with diminishing returns. Would you rather carve a door 1% better than you did last year, or learn how to build the rest of the house in the same amount of time? 

If you would rather carve a door 1% better next year then you needn’t read any further, however if you want to work on the rest of the house here are 5 reasons to start adapting a generalist learning style today:

1. Increased Awareness of Blind Spots

Learning like a generalist requires opening up your mind to take on a much larger picture than that of a specialist. When you approach learning in this way you start to see both the infinite depth and breath to the scope of learning.

As you talk to people across various different fields you begin to see the different blind spots they have and you begin to see the value of collaboration as a means to transcending these blindspots together as a team.

You quite quickly begin to recognise that you, as a fellow human being, also have many blind spots and this understanding brings with it the humility that is required to accelerate your learning and embrace a long term continuous learning journey.

2. Results Focused and Idea Agnostic

It’s quite astonishing how often we leave out the expected result when proposing an idea, to the extent that it is tempting to pitch an idea to someone without ever even building a prototype to show them. I think there is an inherent fear within us that if our baby idea turns out to be a load of garbage that it will emotionally destroy us and keep us frozen in a state of inaction.

The advantage to being a generalist is that you lose loyalty to one domain holding all the answers or even you yourself holding all the answers. You begin to accept that modern day living is a little more sophisticated than this. Instead of latching onto pride, you become more open to the best ideas that can come from any field or any merging between fields.

3. Highly Adaptable

Consider this quote from Eric Schmidt in his book How Google Works:

Favoring specialization over intelligence is exactly wrong, especially in high tech. The world is changing so fast across every industry and endeavor that it’s a given the role for which you’re hiring is going to change. Yesterday’s widget will be obsolete tomorrow, and hiring a specialist in such a dynamic environment can backfire. A specialist brings an inherent bias to solving problems that spawns from the very expertise that is his putative advantage, and may be threatened by a new type of solution that requires new expertise. A smart generalist doesn’t have bias, so is free to survey the wide range of solutions and gravitate to the best one.

Through learning like a generalist you become less attached to specific content that quickly becomes outdated. Instead of being resistant to change and threatened by progress you begin to see that your adaptability is what forward thinking companies are seeking.

4. Deeper understanding of Learning Principles

The more you learn across fields the more you see similar patterns and principles play out. The more you start over as a beginner in yet another new field of interest you will naturally start filtering for things like the 80/20 principle and you are more aware of the information that exists on the edges that people inside the bubble are often times missing — e.g. marketing and sales teams are notorious for not understanding what the other fully does in the same way that computer programmers often don’t take the time to discover more about the role of a software tester and vice versa.

5. Diverse and Interesting Conversations

Above all learning like a generalist opens many doors to interesting conversations and friendships with interesting people. You quite quickly learn that people like to talk to people who they feel understand them. 

As a generalist the good news is that you just need a basic grasp of the field to ask genuine questions that contain an authentic desire to learn more. When someone feels your genuine curiosity they will often times expose you to an expertise level of knowledge that you might never find in a book.

Over to You…

Do you learn like a generalist? What advantage or disadvantages have you experienced?