Why generalists will take over the world

And when the world gets bored of penguins? What then, Tom? What then?

Are you into technology and walking? Woody Allen movies and productivity? Sandwiches and property investment?

We are, and we’ve spent a long time feeling bad about the diversity of our interests.

The whole way through school, you’re encouraged to specialise – picking one narrow path at the expense of all the others. Even when you’re out of school and deciding what to do next, the most well-meaning advice seems biased against you: how do you “follow your passion” when you’ve got about 20 of them, and they change every day?

We wrote on our love letter to Quora how reassuring it was to see that plenty of other people had a bizarre cluster of interests too, and we’re even seeing whole communities popping up around the idea that it’s possible – even desirable – to make use of as many of your interests as possible.

So we’ve come up with three reasons why generalists are going to take over the world.

Great! You’re the best Betamax repair guy in the world!

The longer you study, the less you study: your broad curriculum becomes a degree in one subject, then you’re awarded your PhD for spending three years studying a tiny, tiny sliver of that subject.

Which is great…until that super-specific skill isn’t valuable to the world anymore. However impressive that skill or however deep that knowledge about one tiny area, people won’t pay for it if the world has moved on and it’s not solving a problem for them anymore.

For most of history, it’s been safe to assume that if you learn a skill it’ll be useful for the rest of your life. Now though, the world is moving so fast that you just can’t bank on it.

Some skills – plumbing, cooking, architecture – are set to be with us for a while. Others could easily be wiped out tomorrow: if you’ve dedicated the last five years of your life to becoming the world’s leading expert in Twitter marketing, what are you going to do when everyone stops using Twitter and moves on to the next big thing?

Futureproof.

Ideas have sex

As Matt Ridley and James Altucher have written and spoken about, breakthroughs come from the sudden connection of two seemingly disperate ideas.

We’ve written before about how to combine your interests to generate business ideas. We were talking in terms of finding an idea for a totally new business: so if you’re into podcasts and long walks, start a business selling pre-recorded walking tours of tourist areas that people can follow on their iPods.

It’s not limited to ideas for new businesses, though. Jay Abraham has written about how breakthroughs in an existing business come about when they steal an idea from another industry: what’s common in one line of work can be revolutionary in another.

Because the world’s moving so fast, we need breakthroughs – incremental progress isn’t good enough. By having a wide range of interests, you’re not going to be that blinkered cafe owner trying to cut costs by 1% by changing the brand of cup you use…you’ll be stealing the subscription model from your interest in technology startups, and supercharging your revenues by giving people the convenience of paying for their morning coffee automatically in advance every month.

Don’t be a man with a hammer

As Charlie Munger said in a 1995 speech at Harvard University (and other people probably said before him): to a man with a hammer, everything looks pretty much like a nail.

In other words, if you’re an expert only in SEO, you’ll tend do think that getting higher in the search rankings is the answer to everything – even if, in fact, the site has loads of traffic but it’s so badly written that it’s not converting any of that traffic into purchases.

Seeing the world through a single lens is dangerous, because your brain subconsciously seeks out validation in support of your worldview. Just like you start noticing people’s shoes when you’re thinking of buying some shoes yourself, you’ll start seeing examples of SEO being successful everywhere. By zeroing in on this evidence, you might miss plenty of other examples of another solution being more successful.

So what about us?

We’ve given up on trying to focus on one thing – we can’t do it, and we don’t even think we should do it anymore. If we spent all day just building and reading about WordPress sites, we’d go crazy.

And actually, our wide range of interests is good for our clients: we’ve got a whole toolkit rather than just a hammer. That means we can understand their problem and find the best solution for it, rather than try to cram their problem into the only solution we’ve got. We can also give them a bunch of ideas we’ve seen working in other industries that they might not be aware of.

So as a compromise, we’ve found a new kind of focus: a focus on serving a particular group, while benefiting from being exposed to a huge range of different interests and skills. We’ll be writing more about that in the future.

Are you naturally interested in a whole load of stuff, or do you tend to obsess over one narrow area? Do you see it as a strength or weakness? Let us know in the comments!

  • I’m naturally interested in a whole load of stuff, but I do obsess about food, walking miles from one speciality food shop to another and agonising sporadically about whether my vanilla essence is really fair-trade or not.

  • Completely agree. In a way, I’d say ADD is where it’s at 😉