One of the defining decisions of our careers is whether to specialise or be a generalist. In the early 18th century, it was possible for a diligent and clever individual to have a good grasp of almost all learning: the humanities, science, technology, commerce and so forth. In the 21st century, the proliferation of knowledge is such that many professionals spend decades studying just one narrow aspect of a subject. This gives them significant domain expertise — but also leads to a somewhat restricted existence, and possibly dead ends.
I can never judge whether specialisation leads to obsession, or vice versa. Becoming a true authority in a particular field tends to involve both — and it has its advantages, certainly in academia. You are much more likely to discover something important by doing deep research rather than taking a dilettante approach to your discipline.
However, in business I can’t deny that I am impressed by those entrepreneurs who can rove around different sectors, successfully building companies that address unrelated markets. They are fairly rare. Some argue that leadership is a portable skill that can be applied to any industry; perhaps. I am inclined to think that talent, understanding and customer and competitor networks are vital for any good boss. Opportunities inevitably present themselves when you are immersed in a particular trade.
Yet often innovation is better done by outsiders without the prejudices and baggage of those who have spent their careers in the discipline. Newcomers bring fresh ideas and challenge old assumptions. Sir James Dyson revolutionised the vacuum cleaner market when he launched his bagless Dual Cyclone in 1993. The multinational, long-established players such as Hoover steadily lost share to the new rival. Dyson is now the UK’s market leader, and has a significant presence overseas.
Occasionally, individuals break the mould and pursue more than one calling with great distinction. One such is Allan Shiach, co-creator of the hit Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit, who turned 80 last year. Under the name Allan Scott, he has been an eminent scriptwriter since the 1970s, working on seminal films such as Don’t Look Now. He was also extremely successful as leader of the Scotch whisky business Macallan-Glenlivet, growing its value 200-fold in the decades to 1996. In addition, he is the impresario behind the stage musical Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Quite a performance, I’d say.
Even if an entrepreneur has tunnel vision and focuses on a very specific niche, it’s important they have a hinterland. By this I mean real interests outside work. I have failed badly in the past in terms of knowing enough about some of the people with whom I’ve partnered. It can be tricky to gain insight into a business partner’s personal life — but I’ve learnt the hard way that it matters. The domestic and emotional can overwhelm the professional. Managers with significant responsibility may have marital problems, or profound mental health issues, or suffer from drink or gambling addiction. Prying into others’ private affairs unreasonably is not acceptable, but if you cannot trust someone, you cannot work with them.
Shifts in behaviour and technology — as we’ve experienced during the past 12 months — can make entire livelihoods redundant. Concentrating on one sector or discipline for 30 years may have been a wise career move in the past, but now it can easily mean you are washed up in your fifties, stuck in a declining industry with no obvious way out, never having considered other options. Retailing, broadcasting, package holidays and magazine publishing were growth businesses when I was in my twenties. It could be argued that in 2021 they are all dying. I hope they can be reinvented, but would you recommend their prospects to a graduate now?
A recent book, Range, by David Epstein, enjoys the subtitle How Generalists Triumph in a Specialised World. While I do not wholly endorse the premise, the author makes sound points.
He shows how many high-achieving athletes, artists, inventors and scientists did not specialise early. Instead, they acquired broad skills, experimented endlessly and sampled widely. Our working lives are likely to last half a century, enough to explore various different avenues. We should not feel constrained by traditional concepts of a job for life.
I would advise twentysomethings against hyperspecialisation, and to build up their capacity for retraining and reinvention. Life is a long journey — the more varied, the better.