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Why We Need Generalists In The Workplace

Don’t try to conform generalists into specialists. They can be some of the most resourceful people you will meet, and resourcefulness is a critical skill in fluid workplaces.

My upcoming book addresses how people and teams trace the clues of effectiveness and develop unique, compelling, and resonant voices. Unlike much of the mythology surrounding the stories of how people “find” their voice, I believe that it’s more apt to say that people develop a voice over time through observation, continual refinement of their vision for their work, and willful and disciplined practice.

Last week I received an e-mail from Emilie Wapnick with a link to her recent TEDx talk. She argues that while culture wants people to specialize early and often, many of the great breakthroughs in science, the arts, and business have been the result of interdisciplinary exploration and the convergence of multiple interests into one effort. Instead of making generalists feel like there is something wrong with them, Wapnick argues that we should instead recognize them as the ones most likely to note connections that lead to innovative ideas. She calls these generalists “multipotentialites”.

I’ve been a multipotentialite all of my life, and as such have often felt like I didn’t really belong in any certain specialty. This can be a challenge, because it means that it’s difficult to answer the question “what do you do?” (Even after writing three books and consulting countless companies, I still sometimes struggle with the question. More often than not, I simply reply “writer”, even though that probably occupies the least of my time. Still, it’s something people can grab onto.)

I believe it’s important to refuse to allow the marketplace to conform generalists into specialists. This is something to be mindful of if you lead a team of creatives. Generalists can be some of the most resourceful people you will meet, and resourcefulness is a critical skill in fluid workplaces. However, that means that we may need to develop a new way of measuring success, because the work of generalists tends to be more about large-scale, long-arc value rather than immediate-term results.


Question: Are you more of a generalist, or a specialist? What did you think of Emilie’s “multipotentialite” talk?

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Last modified: December 1, 2022

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