The Rise of the Generalist Part III: How to Thrive as a Generalist

Many generalist resumes end up like this. But don't worry, there are ways to avoid this fate.

Just because specialists aren’t doing as well as they used to doesn’t mean that being a generalist is easy. In the corporate job market, specialists are still the ones who are picked first while generalists seemed doomed to fight each other for the  leftover scraps.

There is, however, a growing breed of generalist that doesn’t seem to need to fight for scraps, and actually does much better than most specialists do. These generalists stand out amongst the rest. They choose to acquire skills not to become experts, but to complement their other skills.  Their work is not often perfect, but often quite original. Because they aren’t confined by a single  discipline,  they  see connections between many disciplines, and can make incredible insights in the process. They know that their talents are not easily recognized from the bullet points on their resume and it doesn’t bother them. They have taken it upon themselves to aggressively market the benefits they offer to others. Finally, they possess a profound level of clarity, and know what actions to take or not to take in order to work toward their big-picture goals.

It certainly isn’t easy to become such a person, but I’ve found the following rules very helpful:

  • Learn How to Sell Yourself.
  • Combine skills to Make Something Wonderful.
  • Find Your Missing Ingredient(s).
  • Keep Your Purpose in Mind.

Learn How to Sell Yourself

Selling yourself to a potential employer is just like selling any other product. And when it comes to products, people don’t buy features, they buy benefits. Any time you sell your personal services you have to make it clear how your talents and skills can affect an employer’s bottom line. If you’re an accountant, and have 10+ years financial planning experience, the benefits of your personal features (i.e. your resume) are obvious to an employer. If a company needs a financial planner and you are a financial planner, it’s a no-brainer. As long as you don’t pick your nose in the interview, you got the job.

The benefits that generalists have to offer employers, however, are much less obvious. Job openings that require a little bit of experience in this field and a little bit of experience in that field are the exception, not the rule.

As a generalist, you can see connections between various disciplines and come up with wonderful ideas and business solutions that would be of great benefit to any employer. The problem is, most hiring managers aren’t looking for people with unconventional talents. Instead, they’re thinking about the empty slots in their organization chart that need to be filled, and they won’t have time to be open-minded about how you can benefit their company.

If you’re a generalist looking for a job. It’s important to be aware of your unique talents and abilities, the things that you can do better than anyone else. You need to know what your strengths are before you can start selling their benefits. Take tests and read books that focus on understanding your strengths (Strengthsfinder 2.0 , the Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator Test , and Is Your Genius at Work? are a good start).

Once you have a good idea of the unique benefits you offer, research and seek out companies or small businesses that might need those benefits. It doesn’t matter whether they’re hiring or not. Since you have a generalist background, companies are almost never looking for someone with your profile anyway. That doesn’t mean however, that they couldn’t greatly benefit from you. It’s your job to convince them that they can.

When researching a potential employer, get to know the business from top to bottom. Get in touch with employees and managers through networking events, social media, and yes, *gasp!* cold-calling. Make it clear to everyone the unique benefits you could offer their business. If they aren’t interested in those benefits, ask them if they know someone else who might be, and get their names and numbers.

As a generalist, the value you offer is so unique that only the most open-minded employers would be willing to take you on. Because of this, it can sometimes be much easier to work for yourself. If employers can’t figure out what benefits you offer them, the most viable option for you is to sell your services directly to the marketplace. The initial risk is much higher, but the potential rewards will often exceed them.

Combine Skills to Make Something Wonderful

One of the greatest advantages a generalist has is the ability to explore and innovate. They’re able to draw connections between disciplines that seem to have nothing to do with each other on the surface. When these connections are made and acted upon something wonderful happens.

Julian Voss-Andreae, for example, was a physicist who developed a passion for art and sculpture. After finishing art school he made beautiful, thought provoking sculptures that vividly evoke scientific principles. One of his most famous sculptures is the “Quantum Man”, a sculpture that seems to disappear when you look at it from different angles:

The Quantum Man exists because of Voss-Andreae’s unique background in two very different disciplines: physics and art. The inspiration behind this sculpture was his attempt to visualize what a human being would look like as a waveform (waveforms being things you don’t learn about much in art school).

Voss-Andreae now works full-time as a sculptor, doing what he loves. You could search for years to and never find a job that requires a physics and an art degree. Voss-Andreae didn’t find that job. He created it for himself.

It’s important to be open-minded and explore as many fields as possible. There are a million things that you could be passionate about if you just took the time to acquire new skills. Not all of these new skills will be career changing, but some of them might be. The new skills you gain have the potential to complement your old ones in wonderful ways and help you make a unique and valuable contribution to others.

Find your missing ingredient(s)

Voss-Andreae may have had ideas of representing scientific concepts through sculpture when he was working in the lab, but he wouldn’t have been able to make them a reality if he hadn’t decided to get training in the arts. For him, artistic skill was the missing ingredient needed to embark on a new career.

Six months ago I decided to make an idea I had for a web application a reality. The idea for the application draws upon my knowledge of creative writing, teaching, headhunting, and, most recently, blogging. If I hadn’t had this diverse background, I most certainly wouldn’t have had the idea for this web app. And yet, I wouldn’t be able to create the web app without teaching myself how to program. I bought books, watched video tutorials, and coded coded coded until I was able to put a working prototype together. At this writing, the app seems stable, and is soon to go through testing. For this particular business venture, programming skill was my missing ingredient.

If you’re a generalist, you’ve probably had killer ideas that could only have resulted from having experience in several fields. Most of these ideas, however, are destined to become stillborn if you don’t acquire a certain skill or familiarize yourself with a certain industry. More often than not, you’ll need to acquire something you don’t currently have in order to bring your ideas to life. Explore your hidden talents, take photography classes, or even cooking classes. New skills might start out as hobbies, but they have the potential to become much more. What’s your missing ingredient?

Keep Your Purpose in Mind

You probably won’t know with 100% certainty what your missing ingredient is, but if you spend time defining your purpose, you’ll often get a pretty good idea.

Your purpose is a lifetime goal that provides you with a direction. You define your purpose by asking yourself a simple question: “How can I best leverage my natural talents to help people in a way that is most meaningful to me?” Answering this question isn’t easy, but the more you ask it the closer you get to defining just what your purpose is.

When you define your big-picture goals, it becomes clear what skills you’ll need to acquire in order to work toward them. My purpose (right now anyway) is to deliver significance and meaning to people who most need it. I’ve chosen to create a web app that I believe can do just that. This doesn’t mean, however, that I haven’t entertained pursuing other paths. I have, for example, thought of becoming a career coach. However, because I feel that the web app has the potential to deliver the most significance to the most people, I’ve chosen to study programming for now. If this venture fails, I can always study career coaching later.

When you create lifetime goals, making career choices is a simple matter. It’s not about what will look good on your resume, but rather about what career choice will enable you to take the biggest steps toward your goals. Oftentimes this means you’ll be working in several different fields, sometimes for little or no pay at all.  If you continue to reassess your goals and work to create clarity for yourself, however, there will be a point where your skills converge to help you work toward your purpose, and you’ll probably get paid well while you’re doing it.

The Generalist is Rising

Although the job market ever since the middle ages has favored specialists over generalists, this is soon to change for the following reasons:

  • Technology will enable less people to do more things, thus cheapening skill.
  • Skill is becoming less exclusive. Today, people have the opportunity to teach themselves anything.
  • Markets change. When an industry flounders, many specialists who relied on that industry will have trouble getting a job. Also, markets are bound to change faster than they do now.
  • Creativity and originality will be of much higher value than skill. Generalists who can draw upon insights from several fields and create something new will have a leg up on the specialists who are stuck refining old ideas.

Just being a generalist, of course, does not guarantee success. As a generalist you must know just how to market your skills. You must have a clearly defined purpose and acquire skills as needed in order to succeed. The generalist may fail more than the specialist will, but after the first success, all those failures are sure to be forgotten.

This concludes the three part series, The Rise of The Generalist. Be sure to check out parts I and II if you missed them. If you liked the Quantum Man, check out Julian Voss-Andreae’s website to see other fine examples of his work.

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  • I agree that creativity and originality will be higher than any skill. In the future with the ever increasing competition, creative problem-solving will be a massively valuable “skill”.
    .-= Gordie – Lifestyle Design For You´s last blog ..Personal Development Through Song: “You’re The Best”. =-.

  • Kenji


    Indeed. Creative problem solving will be the skill to have in the future. I just read a study yesterday that said that a group of scientists from several different fields were able to solve a scientific problem way faster than a group of experts in that field. I think it took the diverse group something like 10 minutes while the experts took more than an hour.

  • This is indeed true. People can teach themselves anything so easily nowadays. Good point Kenji.
    .-= Financial Samurai´s last blog ..The Government Is Sexist And Nobody Seems To Care =-.

  • Kenji, I know so little about coding and web apps that I can’t create the bridge to the latter, because I know it presumes some knowledge of the former, i.e. I may have a hypotenuse idea, but don’t know which way to draw the legs, only that somehow I need to know how, and where they are, or my hypotenuse is just a line that anyone can pick up and move: there’s no underpinning.

    How would you suggest I begin to learn code that will help me create appropriate, or at least helpful, viable web apps?

    Ruby? HTML? XML? ???

    And I was so good at base 2 in 7th Grade…
    .-= Jay Hepner´s last blog ..It was 28 years ago today . . . =-.

  • Kenji

    Ruby on rails seems to be the most powerful language by far for developing apps. I recommend reading sitepoint’s “Simply Rails” by Pratrick Lenz first and then “Agile Web Development with Rails” has a lot of resources as well. is also a good resource when you’re trying to figure out how to implement certain features. Basically the first month or so you’ll be following along with tutorials and not be sure whether you’re actually learning this stuff or not. Somewhere along the line there’s an aha! moment, and all the code makes sense.

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  • Rusty

    It seems you are describing specialist with additional skills, not generalist. Let us say that specialists are qualified on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being neuro-surgeon like expertise. A 5 reads the articles and understands them, but I wouldn’t hand them a scalpel. I am a 5 or 6 at a bunch of things, a 7 or 8 on a couple particular skills. I’ve worked myself up to a 9 a couple of times to get paid for it, but then pulled shoulder from grindstone and quickly lost my edge. I am not/never been a 10 at anything, usually because I get bored beyond a certain level of understanding. The, ‘yeah, i get it – time to move on’ syndrome. Basically, an artist temperament in a world that doesn’t particularly reward artist, and without a driving need to ‘self-express’ (or, as in some artist case, draw largely unwarranted attention to one’s self because the ego needs a feeding).

    I’m not lazy, just easily distracted. Where does that individual fit in your discussion?

  • Kenji

    Hi Rusty. Welcome 🙂

    I think you make a very good point. I come from an HR background so when I see someone who has “done a little of this, and a little of that” I automatically think of them as generalists. I suppose specialization is important, but that it’s important to specialize in several things in order to contribute the most value. Honestly I feel that the nines and tens of the world don’t contribute much more than the 7’s or 8’s. I guess it’s all about finding that winning combination.

  • kt

    Hi Kenji — interesting article! I consider myself a generalist and usually have a hard time finding work because I can do everything and anything. People see my resume and don’t get a good sense of who I am. It’s quite frustrating. Sometimes I find myself in roles well below my capabilities and end up being unchallenged. In a world where people judge you on a pretty irrelevant title, I find being a generalist a difficult thing. I definitely have a missing ingredient; I constantly feel like my wings have been clipped.

  • Vijay Joshi

    It is an greate artical cause i begin to find out my USP and i am finding it very difficult to know my own USP but to get sucess it is very importent to know our own USP.

  • Mark

    I think the point is if you want to be a specialist, be specialist in a high demand.

    A specialty in Cardiovascular surgery is certainly more valuable than a specialty in Aborigin Language.

    If I have to repeat my career I still want to be a specialist, but the one in high demand. For me, I made a stupid choice of my life. Here I am married with one kid 37 years old unemployed Roboticist loser. The only thing good about my profession is that I can make a cool robot for my son !!

    I am an industrial roboticist with PhD in Machine Intelligence and Masters in Mechatronics. I thought that robots will rule in the future, apparently its only live within research laboratory.

    After postdoc to postdoc without a real job, I am jobless now. Taught myself stock trading online, at least my background in Machine Learning will help me to predict the stock movement I thought.

    I made a stupid stupid stupid choice. Fucking robots are only for goddamn kids!!

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