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The Value Of Being A Generalist


Paul Genberg is the interim chief executive officer at Studio X, an innovation studio that launches products for the future of exploration.

Over the course of my life, I’ve been a professional skier, designed and launched cookware lines for Giada De Laurentiis and Martha Stewart; created shoes sold at Walmart, Sports Authority, Dick’s and others; done corporate strategy for a slew of organizations; and now I’m the interim chief executive officer at Studio X, an innovation studio that launches products around the future of work in exploration. My career continues to be a crazy and adventurous ride.

I didn’t set out to help lead a company owned by Shell. How did I get here? By being a generalist, the “hub of the wheel” that leads our experts and keeps our projects rolling forward toward success.

Specialization Is A Golden Cage

There has been so much talk in the corporate world about specializing that we’ve forgotten the value of being a generalist. We tell our kids, “Find what you’re good at, and stick to it.” But what if that industry goes away? What if the kid figures out 10 years after graduation that they hate what they do? With no other skills in the armory, we trap ourselves in the golden cage of specialization. We can only move up and down on a single trajectory.

The world needs specialists. I work with brilliant subject matter experts every day. But specializing is not the only way to get ahead and make a name for yourself, contrary to popular opinion. Businesses need generalists to connect the dots.

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What Is A Generalist?

A generalist is a dabbler, an explorer, a learner — someone with broad knowledge across many topics and expertise in a few. Generalists are likely to have a meandering career path like mine. Although the life story of a generalist can look a bit disjointed, if you were to draw a Venn diagram of their experiences, you’ll find a great amount of overlap as one opportunity leads to another, like throwing a stone into a pond and watching the ripples spread out concentrically. I’m specialized in product design and development, but over time I’ve stretched myself and my expertise to encompass venture finance, operations, engineering, etc. All knowledge builds on itself, and the generalist takes his suitcase packed full of wide-ranging experience with him wherever he goes, offering companies a tremendous amount of value.

The Benefits Of Being A Generalist

Broad experience has its benefits. Generalists have a more diverse collection of knowledge to draw from, so they can see connections and correlations that specialists might miss. They tend to have a higher EQ, too, because becoming a generalist means interacting with many different kinds of people in all sorts of situations.

Generalists are the conductors that lead the orchestra.They have a high capacity to collaborate effectively and facilitate collaborations between teams because of their high EQ. Generalists also tend to have a higher level of situational awareness and can see the bigger picture. Where specialists tend to have a high degree of awareness in their own area, they may not be great at understanding areas outside their fields. They need a generalist, a big-picture thinker, to bring it all together.

I know enough about a lot of things to have intelligent conversations with all kinds of experts, facilitating deeper dialogue that leads to better solutions. I can challenge their assumptions, or at least ask the right questions and use their lingo to better frame the problem and solution. You know that feeling when a car mechanic tells you it’s going to cost thousands to fix your car, and you panic, wondering if they’re taking advantage of you? Well, I still get that feeling at the mechanic, but I don’t get that feeling at work.

How To Become A Generalist

It’s never too late to become a generalist, even if you’re already well-established in your career. In fact, if you’ve been doing the same type of work for years, committing to becoming a generalist now might be exactly what you need to boost your motivation as well as your skill set. Here are some ways to broaden your experience.

1. Say “yes” to new opportunities. A lot of the meandering on my life path has been opportunistic. An opportunity presented itself, and I said “yes,” whether it was within my current skill set or not. Take the trip, go to the conference, collaborate on the project, go rock climbing for the first time, etc. New experiences of any kind help you understand your world better. I love the movie “Yes Man” with Jim Carrey, because he commits to saying “yes” to everything, and his life changes for the better.

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2. Learn the language. If you’re interested in pursuing a new career or specialty, start by learning the lingo. You’ll impress the people who can open doors for you.

3. Dabble in different things. I’ve always been a dabbler. Today, I can have reasonably intelligent conversations with coders, executives, designers, athletes and lots of other influential people because I can always find common ground. Learn something new today, and you can use it to connect with someone that can help you tomorrow.

4. Never stop improving. There is always a new subject to learn that branches out from what you already know. Remember the Venn diagram I mentioned above? Start adding circles to your own.

5. Mind your gaps. Think of what you’re really good at now and what areas of expertise you’re missing. Connect with people, take classes, read books, and create experiences that help you fill those gaps. Ask for feedback from people who know you and who will tell you the unbiased truth about yourself. They may have an outsiders’ perspective about your strengths and weaknesses that helps you grow.

6. Start a side hustle. Side projects help you explore new territory without the pressure of your higher-ups calling the shots. Even if your side hustle is completely unrelated to your current job, you’ll learn valuable skills you can use at work. You’ll learn a lot about the most important person influencing your career path, too — you.

Becoming A Generalist Is An Adventure You’ll Never Regret

There are a lot of benefits to becoming a generalist, but there’s one I forgot to mention. It’s also a lot of fun. I’m always invigorated when I test my own limits, acquire a new skill, and use it to make something great happen at my company or in my career.

Make today your first day of becoming a generalist. Find one small way to branch out of your comfort zone. The first step is always the hardest, but pretty soon, you’ll be running toward opportunities and enjoying the adventure along the way.


Forbes Business Council is the foremost growth and networking organization for business owners and leaders. Do I qualify?

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