The future belongs to the... generalists?

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This article is a little older, but new to me… and perhaps to you.

For decades, we have told people to develop narrow specializations as the way to become a valuable employee — the more unique and desirable your skill set, we were told, the more likely you were to find value and stability. Don’t get a medical degree, specialize in dermatology. You know the drill in your own field. It’s one of the key causes of the proliferation of Masters degrees… and a key cause of professors whose research fields can be so narrow that they struggle to teach the usual introductory classes.

That approach is still being pushed ( I can testify to that with two kids in college), but it’s looking more and more like advice that doesn’t fit the world we are moving into.

As Vikram Mansharamani puts it,

The rapid advancement of technology, combined with increased uncertainty, is making the most important career logic of the past counterproductive going forward. The world, to put it bluntly, has changed, but our philosophy around skills development has not.

Today’s dynamic complexity demands an ability to thrive in ambiguous and poorly defined situations, a context that generates anxiety for most, because it has always felt safer to specialize…

Many forward-looking companies look for multi-functional experience when hiring. This is essential for large organizations like Google, for example, where employees jump from team to team and from role to role.

In fact, Lisa Stern Hayes, one of Google’s top recruiters, said in a podcast that the company values problem-solvers who have a “general cognitive ability” over role-related knowledge.

“Think about how quickly Google evolves,” she said. “If you just hire someone to do one specific job, but then our company needs change, we need to be rest assured that the person is going to find something else to do at Google. That comes back to hiring smart generalists.”

That’s a profoundly different skill set than what we have been told to focus on. But how does one become a “problem solver” with “general cognitive ability?” Does that mean that only braniacs can survive?

When we were first working on this question at Econogy, we found that the best way to enhance the “general cognitive ability” of our unexpected expert consultants was to put them in a position where they were applying their knowledge, but doing it in a manner that required them to stretch. Often, the students who thrived with us were not the braniacs — they were often the students who hadn’t done so well in traditional classes.

The ones who had done well in the classroom were often scared of that ambiguity, that uncertainty.

This is something that all of us who touch communities are going to have to deal with — not just teachers or workforce coordinators. We are going to need our residents, across the board, to re-discover their “general cognitive ability,” their ability to problem-solve. We haven’t done them any favors on that front to date, but with the rate and scope of change that we are all facing together, we’re going to have to get all of our best generalists on deck.