In Defense of Generalists

Why it’s better than ever to be a generalist, aka a jerk of all trades

September 5, 2023
By Tom Carmona

In today’s rapidly changing world, where artificial intelligence is transforming the way we work, and excels at a growing number of tasks traditionally relegated to well-paid professionals like lawyers, engineers, and accountants, a specialized approach is no longer the sure thing that it used to be.

For years, the conventional wisdom was that to get ahead in your career, you needed to specialize. You had to become an expert in a particular field, develop a highly specific skill set, and then climb the ranks of your organization. This strategy made sense in the past when companies valued deep knowledge and expertise above all else. If you’re a generalist, you’ve probably seen this firsthand, as your more specialized peers quickly climbed their career ladders while you were still finding yourself. However, in today’s rapidly changing world, where artificial intelligence is transforming the way we work, and excels at a growing number of tasks traditionally relegated to well-paid professionals like lawyers, engineers, and accountants, a specialized approach is no longer the sure thing that it used to be. As industries become more complex, interconnected, and fast-changing there’s a growing need for professionals who can operate across multiple domains. In other words, there’s never been a better time to be a generalist. 

Generalists are people who have a broad range of skills and knowledge, and who can—at their best—connect the dots between different fields. This has always been true, but in the age of AI, when machines are increasingly able to handle specialized tasks, it’s the generalists who are best positioned to thrive relative to their more specialized peers whose job functions are being automated, or whose hard skills have an increasingly short shelf life. They’re able to bring a unique perspective to their work, and they’re often the ones who are able to identify opportunities and make connections that others miss. This is because generalists leverage their outsider mentality and approach problems from different angles, which can be essential in a world where AI is taking over repetitive and specialized tasks.

Another advantage of being a generalist is that they are often better at collaborating across teams and departments. In today’s fast-paced business environment, it’s increasingly important to be able to work effectively with others and communicate complex ideas across different areas of expertise. Generalists are able to bridge these gaps and facilitate productive collaboration, which can lead to more innovative solutions. With AI technologies being integrated into different areas of the business, the ability to collaborate across different teams and departments, while weaving new technologies into the process in meaningful ways, is becoming more important than ever before.

This interdisciplinary collaboration and coordination will play into the hands of the generalists who have been previously seen as “all over the map” by their friends and colleagues (and I raise my own hand as I write this). In the book The Inside Gig, by Edie Goldberg and Kelley Steven-Waiss, the inside gig talent operating model that the authors describe is an acknowledgement of the increasingly short shelf life of skills and the need to bring people with diverse skill sets and experiences together to create effective teams and leverage otherwise untapped skills throughout the organization. Part of bringing of diverse talent together for project work today is done by AI-powered internal mobility and talent marketplace software, but a lot of this orchestration is best handled by the people (you guessed it, generalists) whose brains have long been playgrounds for the intersection of disparate thoughts, and neurological microcosms of the operating model that Goldberg and Steven-Waiss write about.

Finally, being a generalist can give you an edge in creating powerful and uncommon combinations of capabilities that give you a sustainable competitive advantage in a way similar to the traditional advantage of specialized expertise.  In the book Atomic Habits, by James Clear makes the point that you can stand out in your work if you have a uniquely useful combination of skills. Even if you are worse than your specialized colleagues in each skill taken in isolation, being good at both skills will help you bring teams forward by selectively leveraging the skill that’s most needed in the room. Essentially, be the creative person with working technical knowledge in a room full of engineers, or be a technical person with design skills in a room full of designers. In the book Clear gives the example of Scott Adams, the creator of the successful Dilbert comic strip. Adams readily admits that he isn’t the funniest person in the world, or the most talented artist, but he was able to combine the two to achieve great success. He’s funnier than most artists, and he’s better at drawing than most comedians, and as a result his comic has reached thousands of newspapers and has generated many millions in licensing revenue. Being a generalist-specialist worked well for him. While there’s no clear-cut formula for each person, finding your uniquely useful combination of skills should no longer be seen as a frivolous endeavor.

In conclusion, being a generalist in the age of AI can be a major advantage in today’s rapidly changing world. By cultivating a broad range of skills and knowledge, or a useful combination of at least two of them, you can position yourself to adapt to new opportunities and collaborate effectively across teams. So don’t be afraid to explore new fields and take on new challenges. You never know where your generalist mindset might take you. By embracing a generalist approach, you can set yourself up for success in a world that is being transformed by AI. In other words, being a renaissance man or woman is cool again. Welcome to the Re-Renaissance!


Tom Carmona is an experienced entrepreneur, investor, and operator. Prior to joining ID8, Tom was Managing Director at Symphony Alpha Ventures, where he oversaw early-stage investments in enterprise SaaS, healthcare IT, and healthcare services. Tom holds an MBA with a specialization in entrepreneurial management from the University of Wisconsin and lives in Nashville with his wife and three children. Before entering the business world Tom completed both the Peace Corps and Teach For America programs. In his spare time he enjoys arguing about NBA history with his friends.





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