Do you consider yourself to be a generalist? If so, is it a label you wear proudly? In my experience, this term is rarely used with confidence. Instead, I find that people apply it rather sheepishly as a transitory professional identity, conveniently available until they find their true calling.
Being a generalist—someone with knowledge and skills that apply to an entire field (or multiple)—can be a real asset. The trick is that you have to believe it, and this may not always be so easy. After all, we’re frequently asked to capture our interests and talents in short, soundbite-worthy statements. Questions like “Can you tell me about about yourself?” and the ubiquitous “What do you do?” can leave generalists wishing they had a well-defined specialization.
But not everyone is inclined to be a specialist, and that’s perfectly okay. Can you picture many possible career paths for yourself? Do you feel drawn to change and variety? Then it’s probably worth embracing the nuanced, 360-degree thinking that the generalist category can offer. Here are a few talking points you can work into your elevator pitch or use to internalize your true value.
As a generalist, you’re able to weather—and even thrive in—whatever changes and challenges may be coming.
In “The Secret Power Of The Generalist—And How They’ll Rule The Future,” Megan Casserly, former Forbes contributor, describes how the adaptability of generalists offers a competitive advantage. Similar to how generalist species in the wild can adapt to changing environmental conditions, professional generalists can adjust to changes in the workplace. This might include a new job description, staff reorganization, or leadership changes.
When to use it: If you interview or work for an organization that plans to restructure teams or launch new programs, highlight how your skills apply to a broad range of subject areas. This means you can shift teams or even be a shared resource. Generalists are able to weather—and even thrive in—whatever changes and challenges may be thrown at them.
“I facilitate discovery”
Positive reports on generalist talents aren’t just anecdotal. The most promising new ideas can result from combining knowledge across disciplines—a specialty of generalists.
The Harvard Business Review recently illustrated this point, referencing several studies and citing a classic example: Henry Ford’s car manufacturing assembly line was inspired by sewing machine and meatpacking factories.
When to use it: Take a look at how interdepartmental cooperation works at your organization. You’ll probably discover room to break down siloed thinking, even at well-run organizations that promote collaboration. This is a chance to highlight your ability to look outside a single department, field, or industry for answers. After all, what organization wouldn’t benefit from someone who sources fresh ideas from the outside and encourages interdisciplinary thinking?
“I’m a polyglot”
What generalists offer in breadth, they may lack in deep subject matter knowledge. The Cleverism article, “Ultimate Career Choice: Generalist vs. Specialist,” gives generalists a heads up that this might come their way as criticism. But if you identify as a generalist, you’re probably well aware that your knowledge in any given field has its limits. Here’s another way to look at it: through repeat exposure to different subject areas, you have (or will acquire) a multilingualism that makes you an effective, interdisciplinary translator.
When to use it: As a generalist, you’re well positioned to synthesize various expert opinions at meetings or to review documents through multiple lenses: from the perspective of a scientist who checks for evidence-based conclusions and as an advocacy specialist who wants to promote bold policy recommendations.
“I can predict the future”
It’s probably more accurate to say: “Ideological reliance on a single perspective appears detrimental to one’s ability to successfully navigate vague or poorly-defined situations,” as author Vikram Mansharamani puts it in “All Hail the Generalist.” (But “I can predict the future” is a far better headline).
This statement relates to a study looking at more than 80,000 forecasts made by 284 professional forecasters, finding that non-experts actually make better predictions than experts in their own fields. Philip Tetlock, the Wharton School professor who led the study, concluded: “… it is better to turn to those … who know many little things, draw from an eclectic array of traditions, and accept ambiguity and contradictions.”
When to use it: Use this point with discretion, unless you actually have a track record of accurate forecasting. But if you do stay abreast of trends and developments across multiple fields or industries, you’re well positioned to be a source of broad intelligence that informs in big-picture, strategic thinking.
My professional roots are as a generalist who noticed a clear pattern: all my work relied on my communication skills. Now, as a communications specialist, I can be a true integrator. What’s your story?