1500-Something to Today
Do you remember Adam Smith? He was the fellow who founded the school of Economics as we know it today. He wrote the “Wealth of Nations,” a roadmap for the Industrial Revolution which was to follow. The name of the game? Specialization. It was the identification for the proper conditions for Capitalism.
Then, with that map, the “Titans of Industry” — or “Robber Barons”, depending on your point of view — provided the spark that drove the world into a new age.
But in Smith’s time, most folks did a little bit of everything to get by. The large scale manufacturing that we take for granted had barely begun. Everything was, “home made.” Definitely unique. Definitely not uniform. While this has its charms, it’s not the foundation of a global economy. Nor, frankly, was the crap being made in these bygone days especially durable as ‘durable goods’ go. But, it was a start! A move from having to know how to do everything to only having to know how to do one thing really well.
Henry Ford refined the process, and created the Assembly Line: the apotheosis of Specialization. One worker: one task, taken to a whole new level. But wow! Could they pump those suckers out. He employed a lot of people.
Imagine now! The amount of energy created and freed over time. Each evolution of thought step by step to the 60’s! (Boom, baby!) Specialization is the thing. One person, one job. It works on a global scale. Thousands upon thousands of hours saved through efficiency and technology then reinvested into education. (Not to mention countless struggles of equality and equity.) For some reason, I think of “Mad Men.” I don’t know why.
A stop in the 80’s perhaps for the Toyota company, then a spell in the 90’s for the dot-com boom, and let’s not forget the smartphone. At each step, countless quanta of energy being freed to do new and fabulous things. What used to take decades could take years instead.
Incidentally, it may interest you to know that, these days, we can do some calculations in mere seconds that it would have taken millennia for our fastest computers to solve in seconds. (#quantumcomputing)
Anyway, that is a lot of extra time available made possible by countless specialized individuals that are the bedrock of a global capitalist economy. How many new industries have come and gone in the past century? How many new industries and new technologies are emerging related? How do each of these individual specializations connect? In fact, it is so much extra time created by folks simply doing their jobs that the economy has come full circle and it’s possible to be a Generalist again.
Jack-of-all-Trades, Master of None (?)
If you were to look at a list of services provided by a Generalist in the fifteenth century, you’d see a patchwork hob-glob of seemingly unrelated nonsense. They might be able to crochet and blacksmith. Not much has changed. Wikipedia calls a Generalist a:
“Person with a wide array of skills, useful or not.”Wikipedia
The key difference between then and now isn’t the Generalist’s methodology; but, rather, the sheer abundance of available technology. As explained, each step preceding to now has made it possible, by and by, to expand from Specialization in a particular field — to the ability to Generalize across multiple fields simultaneously if you understand how those fields connect.
Just take a gander at this cog-calendar-graphic-thing I made. It has all of the fun icons that represent my various services in a, um, cog-ular circle fashion, and in no particular order. Everything from Bread Baking to Airbnb Superhosting, my friend!
How are they related? (Well, in this case, if you wanna create a charming experience for one of your Airbnb guests, try baking them fresh bread.)
So, a Generalist while indeed being a Jack-of-all-Trades does happen to be a Master of one in particular: They understand the way things connect.
Everything Connects… to Core Skills!
The way one Generalist forms a “connecting principle” for themselves will differ from person to person. The batch of skills available to one Generalist to the next will surely vary just as much as the skills of one Specialist to the next. Generalist though they may be, I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that all Generalists have a few core skills to which all of their other skills relate. These Core Skills form the foundation of everything the Generalist builds on.
For example, my Core Skills are writing and illustration, everything else I do is related to writing and illustration in some way. (Actually, if you wanna go one step further, my most fundamental skill is Storytelling. I love to tell stories.) When we start talking about the type of things I like to do for customers and clients; I see visual design as an extension of illustration, and WordPress development as an extension of writing. For me, developing a brand system for you is the same as doing a character study, then expressing that study in words and images which are actually/also business assets that help you stay organized. Neat, right?
Anyway — when you know how everything connects through this common root, you make big efficiency saves when you learn a new skill provided by the least-resistance learning path.
Generalist vs Specialist
A Specialist is a person who knows how to get a specific job done: Brain Surgeon. Electrician. Plumber. Whatever your particular challenge happens to be, odds are that the Specialist has “seen it before.”
A Generalist can do all sorts of things! (Useful or not!) And — well — the real useful thing here is seeing how it all comes together. Think of a handyman, or maybe a Pediatrician and your local Vet. By golly, I say any one of ’em could draw you a convincing connection between a chicken and an egg. Whatever the solution this person comes up with for you, count on it being unique to your needs.