Career Zigzagging Generalists Have the Upper Hand

By Yvonne Milosevic

 As you mentally map out your career path, an obvious question immediately crops up. Professionally speaking, is it better to be a generalist or a specialist? At first glance, it would appear becoming a specialist is the key to greater success. After all, it signals expertise in your field. And who doesn’t want to be considered an expert? Upon closer inspection, though, we see that generalists may have the upper hand.

According to bestselling author David Epstein’s book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, sometimes, finding your niche too early can hinder your success. He argues that our greatest strength is the ability to think broadly.

In his 2019 interview on the Knowledge@Wharton podcast, Epstein explained, “The more varied your training is, the better able you’ll be to apply your skills flexibly to situations you haven’t seen.”

Generalists go through a lengthy “sampling period” in their careers. During this time, they gain broad skills that they can scaffold for later learning, he said. By spending time learning about their interests and abilities, generalists often surpass their specialized peers, who tend to plateau at lower levels, Epstein added.

Frogs vs. Birds

Rest assured, Epstein isn’t saying we don’t need specialists. He used an analogy by physicist Freeman Dyson, who said we need both frogs and birds. “The frogs are down in the mud looking at the granular details of everything,” he explained. “The birds are up above and don’t see those details, but they can see multiple frogs and can integrate work.”

career zigzaggingAs a culture, we need to shed our inclination to tell everyone to become frogs and no one to be birds. “That makes us inflexible, and all of our information is coming out of context. I think we need both,” Epstein said.

Hey generalists: Look for a match quality

To be honest, most of us don’t have automatic insight into our talents and interests. Economists have coined the term “match quality” to describe the degree of fit between a person’s ability and their interest in the work they do. We learn about our interests and strengths only by trying things. Epstein cited ample research showing how changing your interests can maximize your match quality.

“You can do all the strength finder quizzes you want, but your insight into yourself is constrained by your roster of previous experiences,” he said. We need a period of zig-zagging and experimentation to discover a better match and goal.

But I thought I was supposed to have grit?

Ostensively, it would seem that this quest for match quality flies in the face of another highly-touted quality of late: grit. We’ve heard that perseverance is the characteristic we need to instill in ourselves and seek in others. But Epstein believes that a lot of experimenting does not mean you have no grit.

“That’s not lost time. You haven’t wasted it,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that transitioning is easy, but you can take what you learned in one domain and bring it to the other.”