Why Can’t I Be a Generalist?

Leonardo da Vinci is aptly classified as the consummate Renaissance Man: a very clever person who is good at many different things.

A polymath, Leonardo can also use any of the following to describe himself:

inventor, painter, sculptor, architect, scientist, musician, mathematician, engineer, writer, geologist, gastronomist, botanist, historian, cartographer, paleontologist.

And most importantly, social media influencer.

We know him for the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, the Vitruvian Man — equal parts arts and mathematics — he drew designs for flying machines, submarines, steam cannons, hydraulic pumps, and a mechanical knight; dissected corpses and produced achievements in anatomy, physiology and biomechanics far ahead of his time.

In 1502, he drew a design for a bridge across the Bosphorus, and that design was used to construct an actual bridge in Norway — in 2001!

I mean, how impressive of a list is that? And it’s not just that he did things across all of those academic disciplines, but that he did them well, and made valuable, lasting contributions across them all.

Leonardo da Vinci was not a specialist. He was a generalist. And obviously, a really, really good one. But a generalist nonetheless.


Today, we live in a world of specialists, and being a generalist is purportedly not as advantageous to one’s career or ability to contribute to any discipline.

Our renowned tech leaders have been on a linear path to tech leadership since they came out of the womb.

Their path of specialization usually includes a prodigious interest in computers and coding, the access to computers and learning materials, and the introversion required to play on them, by themselves, all day long over the course of many years.

The idea of specialization as a requirement to one’s success is a commonly held belief across sports — especially American Football, where teams carry a punter and kicker on their roster — personal branding, the arts, and many other categories of business outside of tech.


Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers introduced the 10,000 rule — it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice for one to become an expert.

While the 10,000 rule has come under scrutiny in the past few years, the support for specialization makes sense — if one does one thing a lot of the time for a long about of time, that person is going to get really, really good at that one thing.

And yet, Leonardo da Vinci was a more successful in a variety of individual disciplines as a generalist than most, if not all, of the top specialists we can name in the above mentioned categories.

Was Leonardo just a once in a generation genius?

Or, were his abilities developed and compounded precisely because he was a generalist and worked across so many disciplines?


I don’t want to be a specialist.

I’ve thought a lot about my personal brand recently. All of the personal branding gurus say pick a niche — you must speak to one audience and represent yourself consistently to that audience.

But I really struggle with that advice — I don’t want to write about just one thing, and it would be inauthentic for me to do so.

Similarly, I don’t want to work on just one thing either. If I chose to do so, I would be victim to the sunk cost fallacy.

If I gave in to my feeling obliged to work only on the thing I’ve worked on in the past, I may argue that I am doing so only because of the obligation to be a specialist and accrue my 10,000 hours faster; because I don’t want to wastemy prior experience and skillset that has accrued all this time. Because otherwise, my past experience will have been a sunk cost.

Am I setting myself up for failure?


Meanwhile, another person who many have set himself up for failure is Mark Zuckerberg.

As Facebook continues to be embroiled in scandal, many question Zuck’s ability to lead Facebook as CEO.

Zuckerberg, in my view, is most definitely a specialist. His ability to create and develop Facebook into the behemoth that it is surely due large in part to his being a tech wunderkind.

Are his shortcomings as a CEO precisely because he is a specialist?

Are “traditional” CEO’s generalists?

And while organizations themselves create interdisciplinary environments, perhaps having generalists lead them is advantageous.

As companies continue to realize the value of interdisciplinary teams — of having development teams work more closely with sales and marketing, of Ideo’s interdisciplinary approach to design thinking, of the value of putting more diversity in the room — perhaps the business world is recognizing the shortcomings of specialization.

Surely, someone needs to play translator and intermediary when all of these silo’d specialists are in the room.

Do generalists have comparable — and equally valuable skillsets as generalists? Is playing translator, connector, or manager the value of generalists?


An emerging role in the tech and entrepreneurial space is growth hacker.

Growth hackers reside at the intersection of marketer, developer and data analyst.

While organizations realize the value of interdisciplinary organizations and interdisciplinary teams, what about interdisciplinary individuals?

Are growth hackers generalists?

Are they the modern day Leonardo da Vinci’s?

Have growth hackers gotten good at what they do precisely because they are generalists, and reside at the intersection of key disciplines that must function well together for an organization to be successful?


This discussion raises another question — can one only escape the pejorative “generalist” by being good at the multiple things they do?

Growth hackers are probably not better at marketing than marketing specialists, or better at coding than developers, or better at data analysis than data analysts.

But growth hackers aren’t generalists, they’re… growth hackers.

CEOs aren’t generalists, they’re… CEOs.

Leonardo da Vinci wasn’t a generalist, he was a Renaissance Man.


I’m never going to be a tech founder of a startup. I lack the specialization. Nor am I interested in specializing in that way.

Would I be better off if I specialized? Would I get more readers and followers if I picked just one topic?

Maybe.

But I think the world needs generalists, and that they play a valuable role in connecting the dots.

And I’m not just saying that because I am one.

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