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The Power of becoming a Deep-Generalist
Building your category of one by being a deep generalist
I am Utkarsh, the founder of Network Capital. Building a meaningful career is about prioritizing learning over destination. If we are intentional about picking the right problems and partnering with the right set of people, the destination will care of itself.
I got to know Leena Nair, the newly appointed CEO of Chanel, through her writing. My Harvard Business Review articles were part of the Editors’ Picks last year. She wrote about being brave in uncertain times and I shared thoughts on building your category of one.
Leena has built her category of one by being a deep-generalist par excellence. She learned problem solving from engineering, industry knowhow from factory floors where among other things she ensured washrooms were built for women and people management from a wide range of HR roles in Unilever where she championed diversity as a key component of corporate strategy.
The principle of being a deep-generalist is essential for solving complex problems at scale. That’s what great CEOs and leaders are expected to do.
P.S. Former Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi (we recently hosted her on Network Capital) is Leena’s mentor who has often guided her through some of the most challenging decisions.
On YouthINK with Network Capital (a year long learning program for ambitious school students) we help our students nurture the art of becoming a deep-generalist through -
Today early specialization has become the default template for schools and colleges who want to prime students for excellence. Even in the most modern workplaces, a disproportionate emphasis is paid on having narrow skills that are marketable. While there is nothing wrong having an area of focus, one should be mindful of the perils of early specialization. There are three key reason for that.
First, we tend to specialize without knowing why. More than 80% of people work in areas that have nothing to do with their field of study. In India, for example, most students first graduate from courses like engineering and then figure out what they want to do with their lives. Spending four years of one’s life getting deep into a subject one doesn’t particularly care about is a colossal waste of time, energy and money.
Second, it hinders lateral thinking, a problem-solving approach that draws upon seemingly disparate concepts and domains. Most innovators are lateral thinkers. Their lateral thinking is a direct result of combining different strands of thoughts and learning from different contexts. Leonardo Da Vinci combined art and engineering, Steve Jobs built upon the interconnectedness of design, fashion and technology, and Richard Feynman, a Nobel laureate in physics, is known to draw upon references from music.
Third, people with a narrow set of skills tend to approach every problem through the same lens. This not only ignores loopholes in one’s hypothesis but also amplifies biases. As investor Charlie Munger puts it, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail."
If early specialization can backfire, should we all snack on an array of ideas, insights and interests? No. The future belongs to deep generalists, a term popularized by JotForm CEO Aytekin Tank. These are people who combine two or more diverse domains and integrate them into something defensible and unique.
In the 21st century, with the mainstreaming of automation and artificial intelligence (AI), some jobs will become automated and some, redundant. Even highly trained professionals, radiologists, traders, programmers, might lose their jobs to algorithms if they are over-reliant on their narrow set of specialized skills.
On the other hand, deep generalists will not only keep their jobs but also be able to demand a premium for what they bring to the table. These are the professionals who will push the boundaries for creativity and innovation in the AI era. Their competitive advantage will propel them to learn, unlearn and develop innovative solutions consistently.
PS. Classes start March 13, 2022!