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  • Writer's pictureJanice K. Lee

The Rise of the "Expert-Generalist"

Forget about the 10,000-hour rule. This is the most important life hack to culture personal and professional growth

Not many articles make me go"Aha!",

It's something that only happens when I feel like I've learned something important or if I've deeply resonated with the author. Recently I was reading a Forbes article that made me feel like I learned a life hack. And it is. And it's the concept of the "expert generalist."

What is Expert Generalism?

The founder of the term, Orit Gadiesh, described the expert-generalist as someone who has the ability and curiosity to master and collect expertise in many different disciplines, industries, skills, topics, capabilities etc. More importantly, it also means being able to unconsciously:

  1. Draw on that diverse knowledge base to recognize patterns, connect dots, and improvise on situations.

  2. Drill deep to focus and perfect the thinking.

The term is adapted from just what it sounds like: a mix between being an expert, someone who knows much about one subject, and a generalist, someone competent in several different fields. Being an expert-generalist allows individuals to quickly adapt to change. Research has shown that they:

  • See the world more accurately and make better predictions of the future because they can apply patterns in one industry to others and are less susceptible to biases.

  • Have more breakthrough ideas because they can push ideas from an industry into ones where it hasn't been tried yet.

  • Build deeper connections with people who are different than them, in addition to having a more diverse network of peers across multiple disciplines. This also allows them to serve as a connector between people in different groups.

Real-Life Examples

In a Forbes article, Bill Gates said of Charlie Munger, his business partner and the ultimate expert-generalist:

“He is truly the broadest thinker I have ever encountered. From business principles to economic principles to the design of student dormitories to the design of a catamaran he has no equal… Our longest correspondence was a detailed discussion on the mating habits of naked mole rats and what the human species might learn from them.”

This isn't the only example. Steve Jobs used his knowledge of calligraphy to envision a transformative new line of technology. Albert Einstein was trained in physics, but to formulate his law of general relativity, he taught himself an area of mathematics far removed from his expertise, Riemannian geometry. Here's another great example from Marissa Mayer, previous CEO of Yahoo!:

cr. SlideShare

Why you Should Practice Expert-Generalism

The evolution of scientific knowledge, aka scientometrics, has found 2 key findings:

As new disciplines emerge, they become their own subset and culture of knowledge. This specialization has become so widespread that those who are specialists in one subfield may know little to nothing about the other subfields around them. Given this emergence, some choose to become the best specialist in one subfield, using the 10,000-hour rule to become an expert.

But expert-generalists face far less competition. The more fields you can pull from, the fewer people you will find with the same 2-3 other fields you are also well-versed in. Narrowly specializing leaves you vulnerable if your field becomes irrelvant, too competitive, or obsolete.

My experience in Expert-Generalism

I'm a marketing major. But my 11 years of playing the piano has taught me many things: how to capture the audience's attention, convey and read emotions, and tell a story in three different parts or stanzas. While playing Debussy has nothing to do with business, it has everything to do with understanding the same principles of marketing. And I made these comparisons subconsciously before ever knowing what expert-generalism was!

Here's another example. My experience as a legislative intern and a club member of Model UN & Congress have helped me understand international relations, systems, and issues. When I was competing in the Hult Prize Competition last year, a competition that asks students to tackle global issues through innovative businesses, I had a better understanding than most in identifying worldwide problems and finding large-scale solutions. Without my previous learning foundations in public policy and politics, I would have had a slower time quickly adapting to and finding innovative ideas for our business. In the end, my team ended up making it to regionals in Monterrey, Mexico!

Bottom Line:

Step out of your comfort zone. Try something new and learn something in any other field that you find intriguing! Initially, it may feel like a waste of time, but it's something that has helped me and others drastically improve our personal and professional lives. It can be drawing, learning a new language, something academic, or even picking up an old hobby! Have fun with it and you will thank your multi-faceted passions later.

cr. Lean In


About the Author

Janice Lee is a Sophomore studying Marketing, Accounting, and Entrepreneurship at Rutgers Business School. When she's not looking at business plans, she's most likely on her Oculus Go, experimenting to brew the best iced coffee, or writing about it.

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