Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, February 10, 2020
Jack of all trades, master of none.
Do you remember your mother’s voice telling you to focus, get good at one thing, or how are you ever going to get a real job if you can’t really do anything? How many times have you been told you need a real skill?
My mother subscribed to that point of view. She worried about her son (she did not have a particularly high opinion of him either), so while I was in high school, she told me to learn to type. She figured if all else failed, at least I could get a job as a secretary (this was back when there were secretaries and those strange things called typewriters). And so I did — 90 words per minute on an IBM Selectric. Later, when I was in the Army, that typing thing came in handy, because I became the company clerk — think Radar O’Reilly from M*A*S*H.
OK, I did have a skill, but it was not one that was likely to truly launch my entrepreneurial career. I was not a specialist or expert with deep knowledge of anything. I was doomed to wander around knowing a little about a lot of things, but knowing nothing that was unique and valuable.
Have faith, those of you who have fallen into that muddle. It turns out that the “Renaissance Man” has had a renaissance. Two professors, Frank Nagle, Harvard Business School and Florenta Teodoridis, Marshall School of Business at USC, have conducted research that concludes that “generalists end up doing things not only earlier, but end up having more impact than folks who are more specialized when they engage with the new knowledge.”
The key words here are “new knowledge.” Their thinking is that when something original shows up, either in a device, like Microsoft Kinect, or in a platform, like Amazon, it is the generalists, not the academics who use it first and foremost.
So when it comes to “thinking outside the proverbial box,” it seems that the generalist, the master of none fellow, is the one more inclined to discover something truly new and innovative.
This is an interesting problem. When I am trying to hire someone, I am looking for a particular skill, such as can you code or can you fix the plumbing in my house. But when it comes to the house itself, I want an architect, who may have no ability to fix the pipes, but who thinks in a “broader/generalist way.”
If you have a skill, then your mother will be happy and you will get a job. If you are less hyper focused and have a broader intellectual/skill palate, you might also get a job — but for sure, it will be harder. Your resume says you are a manager. You can strategize, but you really can’t do anything concrete. And so we come to the true entrepreneurial problem — I can’t get a job, and I wouldn’t work for anyone who would hire me.
Nagle says, “hyper-specialization isn’t always the best way to get ahead.” He says that in the instant where you are trying to make incremental improvements in a technology, then you need specialists, but if you are “aiming for big breaks and to invent new stuff,” then having some generalists is necessary. They are the ones who will conceptualize about what is going on in “aeronautics and how it might be helpful in biotech.”
You never know when useless knowledge will come in handy. My first company was funded by a New York venture firm, in part I think, because the deal guy and I could trade lines from the movies and Shakespeare.
Finally, a word on the imposter syndrome and how it affects generalists. You find yourself being the CEO of the company, but you don’t “do” anything — which is different than you can’t do anything. The good CEO never asks someone to do something they didn’t once do — and that includes sweeping the floors, or typing the company commander’s orders.
And finally, think carefully about why there is still a good reason to study philosophy or English in college today as opposed to perhaps computer science or robotics — after all, the Renaissance ended in 1600.
Senturia, a serial entrepreneur who invests in early-stage technology companies, writes weekly about entrepreneurship in San Diego. [email protected]
Rule No. 646
Copernicus, da Vinci and Machiavelli — sounds like an Italian law firm.