The Rise of the Generalist

Recently Steve Rubel posted about What’s the Future Like for a “Renaissance Man” in a Connected World?. In this post he discuses how even though we would think that with the internet an individual could have broad knowledge about the world, instead people specialize in their particular area of expertise. He then says that he himself has instead shifted to being specialist rather than a broad spectrum of knowledge.

I find this puzzling, for several reasons. First off I have seen the internet both increase my knowledge in specific areas that I deeply value as well as increase my knowledge in areas that I may not be overly interested in. The internet brings to me a great variety of information that is mine to read and analyze and digest. Of course it probably helps that with the exception of few subjects (sports and farming) I am genuinely interested in just about everything. From all areas of scientific research, computing and technology of course, psychology, social sciences, medicine, politics, you name I have on some level a genuine interest in it.

I think one can genuinely specialize in a particular field, in my case programming with regards to Java, PHP and AJAX. But at the same time I can and do read up on a variety of information on a host of other fields and subject areas. Part of the reason I write this blog is to educate myself on a variety of subjects. Granted a lot of posts center around technology as to be excepted, yet I hope to talk about other things. Or take a look at the different links that I read around the web with my daily links posts. I’m reading from 200+ RSS feeds, with anywhere from 500 – 1,000 articles a day being read. You know what else, I love it. I love educating myself on something new, I love the idea that I can talk on a decently high enough level on just about any subject. True I may not be able to preform a DNA replication, but I know how it works and why it is important.

Specialization is not a bad thing, but what happens when all we have are specialist. Will people be able to be independent thinkers or hiring a specialist to do their thinking for them? What about managers as well, a boss has to be a generalist. A boss has to at least have some knowledge of everything that his/her employees do even if they don’t specialize in it to be able to make a decent decision.

The idea that people will always defer to the expert in a field is ridiculous, humans aren’t that intelligent and we have too much ego in ourselves. Far too many people do think that they now better than experts right now, look at Hillary Clinton, a very intelligent by all respects woman, who thinks economists shouldn’t tell her that suspending the 18 cent federal gas tax will do nothing to help the average consumer.

We need to be generalists to make decisions, specialization is good, but going too far is just as bad as knowing nothing.

Update: I forgot about Seth Godin’s blog post this morning about the same topic in which he argues we should be specialist rather than generalist.

Justin Yost is a full-time Software Engineer and a part time educator. A graduate of Texas Tech University with a bachelor's degree in computer science, Justin relishes programming and learning more about anything and everything. When not working, Justin occasionally gives talks at the local PHP Meetup. In his free time, Justin enjoys backpacking and reading science fiction books.

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