Which one is better, being a specialist or generalist? Well, maybe not any of them. Instead, the better choice is being a versatilist. There is a good note about it in a Gartner study quoted in The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman:
Specialists generally have deep skills and narrow scope, giving them expertise that is recognized by peers but seldom valued outside their immediate domain.
Generalists have broad scope and shallow skills, enabling them to respond or act reasonably quickly but often without gaining or demonstrating the confidence of their partners or customers.
Versatilists, in contrast, apply depth of skill to a progressively widening scope of situations and experiences, gaining new competencies, building relationships, and assuming new roles.
Friedman added that “versatilists are capable not only of constantly adapting but also of constantly learning and growing” and that they are comparable to “Swiss Army knives” rather than “specialty tools”.
I totally agree with it. This is a fast-changing world, so the best people are those who can quickly adapt and take opportunities of the new waves. From this, we can see that there are actually two things versatilists do:
- They recognize that a new wave is coming before anybody else, and
- They adapt themselves quickly to take the opportunities of the new wave.
To do point 1, we need something I call anticipation engine, while to do point 2 we need something I call learning engine. So, if we are to be a versatilist, we need to focus on building these two things: “anticipation engine” and “learning engine”.
Somehow, it matches very well with what I believe to be the most important skill: the ability to choose what to learn and to learn them quickly.
Anticipation engine deals with the first part of the skill, that is “the ability to choose what to learn”, while learning engine deals with the second part, that is “to learn them quickly”. If we have a good anticipation engine, we will know what the next wave is and where the opportunities will be. From there, we can correctly choose what to learn. Then, after choosing what to learn, the learning engine will help us to learn them quickly so that we can adapt and take opportunities of the new wave.
The graph below summarizes what I believe to be the “ingredients” of versatilists:
Of course, versatilists need more than just anticipation engine and learning engine to succeed. To execute the third step in the graph – taking opportunities of the new wave – they also need other skills such as communication skill or conflict resolution. But these are not what make versatilists different from the rest; specialists and generalists also possess these skills. What make versatilists different are their anticipation and learning engine.