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Gong Ke Gouldstone: Generalist or Specialist?

gong photoGong Ke Gouldstone asks what is means to be a generalist, and why we are pushed towards specialization, even when it might not be what we need.

[stag_dropcap font_size=”50px” style=”normal”]H[/stag_dropcap]arvard Business School is known for its General Management program, yet we’re also told time and again to become an expert at something.  Modern day entrepreneurs like Peter Thiel espouse the virtues of doing one thing really well.  But… what if you like doing lots of different things?  Is “Jack of all trades, master of none” true?  And if so, is that necessarily a bad thing?

As a person who is curious about a lot of things, I am attracted to the New and Shiny.  In my career, this curiosity has translated into a pattern of moving to new projects, teams, companies or industries once every two years on average.  At each point along the twists and turns, I made a conscious decision to pull back and move on to something else.

When I can see where the road leads is when I’m most likely to turn onto a different path.

While this pattern has given me a wealth of life experiences and fun stories to tell, I need to connect the dots for those I meet because my meandering steps have no obvious explanation.  Also, they make me a generalist.  The question that I struggle with now is:  Do I take on a role that’s loosely defined, where what I do can vary greatly from day to day?  Or do I take on a role that would deepen my skills in a particular functional area?

For the lucky ones who know what they enjoy doing the most, it certainly makes sense for them to pursue it long term.  If you know you love sushi and can afford it, why not get it every day?  In fact, Peter Thiel’s urge to focus is representative of societal pressure for us to specialize.  In my mind, there are three main forces driving specialization:

It’s easier to explain a person if she/he has a clear cut role.  Roles provide the same “benefit” as stereotypes in helping us to simplify and understand the world.  At cocktail parties, it’s easier to say “I am a ____” than to say “I did this, then I tried that and then I came back and tried this other thing.”

  1. It’s easier to specialize than to stay general.  The more you do something, the better you get.  So, getting better in a functional role will happen naturally over time.  To stay general, however, you have to make a conscious decision to do so and it almost always disrupts the gains you might be making.  In some ways, specialization is a way to conform.
  2. It’s easier to measure and thus, to reward.  Well-defined roles tend to have well-defined metrics which makes it easier to track performance, as well as to reward the employee accordingly.

General management, on the other hand, has fuzzier metrics of success.  The work of a GM can be seen in all parts of an organization but not concentrated in any particular one.  How do you measure the impact of a good meeting, good mentorship or high Emotional IQ?

[stag_dropcap font_size=”50px” style=”normal”]P[/stag_dropcap]erhaps what matters the most is something that happens at a finer, more mundane level, which is “what will you be doing on a day to day basis?”  If you enjoy doing each of the tasks of a GM, however different they are, perhaps you are a generalist.  If you enjoy doing the tasks of a functional role the most, then perhaps you are a specialist.  If you’re a specialist for something for a little while and then become a specialist for something else, does that make you a generalist then?  Who is to say that we have to stay in one camp?

Perhaps our lifetime development will take on the shape of a deepening vortex.  As we travel through different functional areas, the circle of learning gets tighter and faster until we reach the center where we simultaneously become a master of all and a master of none.

As a Buddhist saying goes, “you become rich when you own nothing”. In this generalist vs. specialist discussion, perhaps the translation might be “a generalist is simply a specialist in many things”.

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You can follow Gong Ke on Twitter at @gongkeshen and read more of her writing at


April 6, 2015
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