Are you a Generalist Who Dreams of Being an Expert? Read this.

Guest Blog by Cheryl Heller, Founding Chair of MFA Design for Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts, New York City

In February of 2008, in the midst of election fever, Jim Giles wrote an article in the New Scientist in support of growing evidence that political leanings are biological. ”According to an emerging idea, political positions are substantially determined by biology and can be stubbornly resistant to reason. ‘These views are deep-seated and built into our brains. Trying to persuade someone not to be liberal is like trying to persuade someone not to have brown eyes. We have to rethink persuasion,’ says John Alford, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston, Texas.”

With far less fanfare, in an interview with Daniel Epstein, the born liberal founder of Unreasonable, I questioned whether the same is true for generalists and specialists. The point I was making was twofold; first that social innovation needs generalists – natural systems thinkers who thrive on diversity and don’t always need to know where they’re going in order to get there, don’t mind not knowing what they’re talking about, see patterns and connections everywhere and solve problems across boundaries. And second, that I don’t think we have a choice about whether we think like that or are drawn to the scientific approach which was described to me at a gathering at the National Academies of Science as diving very very deep in an extremely narrow subject area and never offering opinions outside your narrow expertise in case you are wrong.

I stand by my point of view. As a generalist, I get hives just thinking about narrow areas of expertise. But there’s a price to be paid for that, in addition to being considered a dilettante – or worse, being ignored.

Next, I’m going to make a few outlandish statements in order to:

1. See if anyone is reading this, and

2. See if anybody cares—

Specialists make more money. Expert – let’s face it – is a word that people like. It connotes value and value is what businesses pay for. Experts are sought after and cherished for what they can do. When was the last time you heard anyone say, “Find me a generalist!”?

Specialists get famous faster. As someone who wanted desperately to be an artist (but maybe am too much of a generalist to specialize), I have spent a lot of time thinking about artistic fame. And it does come faster to people with a recognizable style or unique approach. The fact that Joseph Albers could wake up every day and paint another colored square is why people ALWAYS know a Joseph Albers painting when they see one.

We trust specialists more. They have credentials that back up what they say. They don’t speak from their gut and if they do it doesn’t show because they always have facts at their disposal.

Specialists have better titles. They can explain what they do to everyone from young children to their grandparents in Idaho. That saves them an enormous amount of time during introductions.

Specialists have more sex. Because they have better titles, they have more time and are more confident.

HAVING said all of that, it is also true that a good deal of the trouble we’re in as a species is that we have too many experts in the world who work deep in silos and think they have the answer to big things when they only have the answer to small things.

That is why we need more generalists. Or maybe we have plenty of born generalists but due to the expert facts I have clearly presented above, they are afraid to admit to being generalists. Maybe we need to ask the CLOSET GENERALISTS to come out, because we need you now to help us look at the big picture and help clean up the mess we’ve made. Somebody, get us a generalist!

Unreasonable Challenge:

And somebody please think of a better name and title than generalist.

Closet Generalists-—come out! We need you to help us clean up the mess we’ve made!

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