What is a generalist?

Last week i had my personally designed name card made. On it it says: “a trilingual generalist”, believing it is the shortest and best description of me
To my amazement, upon being handed my card, many people asked me “what is a generalist?”

Well according to the Wikipedia a generalist is:

A person with a broad general knowledge, especially one with more than superficial knowledge in several areas and the ability to combine ideas from diverse fields.

By implication, a generalist is able to understand the interconnectedness of various element that is affecting and affected by a phenomenon or decision. Of the top of my head, Mark Zuckerberg as depicted in The Social Network was a generalist (with specialist programming skills) and he was successful because he understood far more than just programming. He was a generalist enough to understand the social and business impact of digitized social relationships and identity, the attraction of social interaction, what is “cool”, business strategy, user habit etc. etc. All business and organizations needs both generalist and specialist. Specialist make sure each individual puzzle pieces works, while the generalist works out how each pieces connects with each other and how the complete picture should looks like.

There is a problem with finding a generalist or advertising as one. Specialist are easy to identify via their formal university training or any certificates that they hold. On the other hand, generalists are much harder to identify, specially if they are just straight out of the school, because there simply isn’t a i-know-how-the-world-works degree. If one have to identify generalist from a group of out of fresh out of school candidates, he or she would likely have had a very diverse curriculum that included substantial philosophical courses (philosophy, Politics, Economics etc). This is perhaps why people dont promote themselves as generalist, cause they feel like that either cant prove it or they fear that they will be seen less as a jack of all trade more of a master of none.


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