What I Learned From Michael Jemtrud
I learned a lot of different things from Michael Jemtrud, but one thing that has really stuck with me over the years is the following idea, sketched out on a scrap piece of paper in a School of Architecture computer lab.
This graph represents a Generalist… i.e., someone who knows a little bit about a lot of different areas:
This graph represents a Specialist… i.e., someone who knows a lot about a very specific area:
I showed him those two graphs, and he drew a third…
…and proposed that an effective strategy for success as a Generalist is to achieve multiple “spikes” in a few different areas. Michael used, as an example, Duncan Swain — someone who has achieved a level mastery in several distinct and diverse areas and then has found interesting ways to tie those areas together. The person is still a Generalist — they aren’t pigeonholing themselves into a neat category, not even a category of one — and yet their different areas of interest serve to reinforce and augment each other, and to discover new things. I think Pieter Sijpkes — my Generalist mentor — does this too, although of course he likes to say that he (and everyone else) has “just one good idea, and everything else is just a variation on it.”
Looking back at this now (c.2007), I see two additional scenarios that the “multiple spikes” approach can lead to:
On the one hand, the multiple “spikes” allow the Generalist to cover broad areas of interest through interpolation, while having a specific set of strategically-chosen skills/expertise that allow for interesting and well-paying work. Those skills or expertise can be incidental to the rest of their interests. I suspect a lot of people in IT / software / web development are described by this scenario.
On the other hand, there is the scenario of the “multiple-spikes” as just another form of hyper-specialization, where a person uses those multiple spikes to create smaller and smaller sub-niches within categories, Venn diagram style, and define themselves as the Expert within a specific intersection of domain knowledge. We see more and more of this in the world of corporate recruiting. A job posting might look something like this: Emerging Life Sciences Company seeks MBA-MD with FDA approval and IPO experience in the field of Medical Devices (but not Pharma). The thing is, they’ll find that exact person in short order, because there are now MBA-MD joint degree programs, so it’s no longer the rare bird who goes through medical school and decides to then get an MBA (but does it ever happen the other way around? I haven’t met one of THOSE yet). So it’s just a matter of settling those med devices/IPO/FDA “spikes,” as it were. A more sublime example is Santiago Calatrava — the “dual-degree” architect/structural engineer — who not only carries the credentials but has actually blended the two disciplines together beautifully… and of course has created a populist “brand” of his own.
Now let’s take all this to the next level… to a more recent meme: “The Brand Called You.” The current doctrine of “Personal Branding” is hyper-specialization taken to new heights (or, if your prefer, new lows) and IM(NS)HO represents the ultimate commodification of the individual, where all the “spikes” of one’s professional & personal life are cultivated into a contrived caricature. However, as The Donald likes to say, “Not everyone has what it takes to be a brand.” …nor do I think should they. Perhaps the issue that’s been bugging me all along isn’t the “generalist-vs-specialist” duality, but rather, something else. Gotta think about this some more…