Some weeks back I came across an article on Medium entitled 1 Powerful Way to Boost Your Creativity by Ravi Shankar Rajan which introduced the term ‘Expert-Generalist’ to me. As I read it I gave out a yelp of ‘YES! Yes, that’s it!’ and did a little jig to myself (not unusual behaviour). I had finally found something that seemed to explain and pull together my varied background, both in my career and personal life, giving some clarity to my scrambled mind. So let’s take a somewhat meandering look at what this means for me and my career.
What is an expert-generalist?
As stated in the Medium post, Orit Gadiesh, chairman of Bain & Co, who coined the term, says an expert-generalist is “Someone who has the ability and curiosity to master and collect expertise in many different disciplines, industries, skills, capabilities, countries, and topics., etc. He or she can then, without necessarily even realizing it, but often by design:
(1) Draw on that palette of diverse knowledge to recognize patterns and connect the dots across multiple areas and
(2) Drill deep to focus and perfect the thinking.”
Am I an expert-generalist?
Whilst I claim to be no expert and still shudder inside at this term ever being used in my presence (imposter syndrome is apparently my closest friend), this is absolutely a definition I can relate to. I have finally found a way of describing what I am/do/my reason for existence.
I have always had a diverse range of interests – from being involved in every club going at school, plus additional and varied interests outside, to my continued love of learning as an adult. With a BA degree, 2 postgrads, 3/4 of a MicroMasters and many evening and day courses under my belt, in everything from printmaking and photography to mindfulness, nutrition, and whittling. In addition to this, I have a pretty serious book and yarn hoarding habit, to fuel my reading and crochet addictions (we’ll ignore the gin hoarding for now).
You may think that all these interests are separate, other than a few of them loosely being under the ‘design’ or ‘craft’ banners. However, they really do compliment each other, even the interests that are technically hobbies and supposedly nothing to do with my professional life. For example:
- My previous experience as a lecturer has given me so much more confidence in presenting ideas, training others and sharing my skills. Something I now love to do! And also, importantly for my e-learning projects, an understanding of learning objectives, teaching to assessment criteria and writing for a defined audience with a specific (or sometimes unknown) level of prior knowledge.
- My reading hobby broadening my language and appreciation of writing styles, flow, and grammar, whilst increasing my awareness of culture, world events and history.
- The printmaking gave me a new appreciation of layering designs and how to achieve a similar effect digitally in my graphics work.
- My knowledge of mindfulness techniques gave me ideas for some interesting tasks to include when writing a mental health suite.
In hindsight, I feel for my A-level personal tutor who (in humour – I think) rolled her eyes every week whilst asking me what I was the current forerunner for my degree applications as it rotated weekly between graphic design, surface pattern, architecture, criminal psychology, interior design, and a whole raft of other things that I read in a prospectus and again exclaimed a little ‘Oooooooh. I wanna do that’. (For the record – I went with International Architecture, then changed my mind 6 weeks in and ran back to my beloved graphics. The maths involved in heat escaping from bricks and the 100+ page study booklet about this which we were given to study in freshers week was not for me. I love architecture – but I’m no architect).
For those that don’t understand this inquisitive nature, they sometimes cite that it must be due to a lack of direction, a flitting brain or not being able to maintain attention. However, it is far from that. It is about having an inquisitive nature and fascination for so many things and wishing I could do them all. Bizarrely, I can maintain attention in many areas simultaneously, though there needs to be a lot of practical skill in there as the memory card in my brain is reaching full capacity for facts and figures. And why shouldn’t we do this?
The employer’s view
Admittedly this approach has meant that I have taken a very wandering path in my career to date, and now I realise why. I have said for a while that I feel more able to look holistically at projects; to see it from many angles, rather than one specialism, and I do believe this is a fairly unique skill. There are not many designers out there that love the words as much as (if not more than) the pictures and can advise on your tone of voice whilst simultaneously editing your photos and advising on appropriate fonts. This is particular has worked well in kick-off meetings with customers and creating design and content strategies.
The flow of my career has meant that I have learned a mixture of skills in design, strategy, technology, presentation, soft skills, and general business knowledge. And I am still learning! And more importantly; combining and applying that knowledge.
I have found in the past that some employers can take a dim view on someone with a varied background such as mine, and as a result, I can easily get overlooked for roles (as has happened this week). However, particularly over these last 8 months whilst working in my first contracting role I have been amazed at how much the three areas I work in have overlapped and complemented each other, and how much I have learned. So I have decided to do a diagram looking at how the areas of content, instructional and graphic design are working together to make me a more well-rounded designer.
What are the positives of being an expert-generalist?
- As someone that likes to keep busy – I always have something to do.
- My general knowledge has increased so much as a result. If it wasn’t for the combination of a terrible memory, I would be a genius (or an expert maybe) and would do better in pub quizzes that’s for sure.
- You meet lots of people – on all the courses, facebook groups, etc that I am a member of.
- I can give quite a lot to others, such as charities that I work with.
- Customers find it easy as they can use me for a lot of their needs, rather than having to shop around for a raft of people to work with.
And the downsides?
- It can sometimes be stressful as I have so many competing interests and cannot keep them all going at the same level all the time. Something usually has to give.
- Being a ‘yes’ person, I also need to learn to say no as I am already taking a lot on and often can creep over into saying yes to too much. Which can then take some enjoyment out of it.
- Getting passed over for opportunities.
- It’s damn hard to explain what you do and as I am currently finding, to write a clear message on your website.
So now I have had the insight, what does this mean for me?
It makes me much more comfortable to finally have a name for my approach and being able to explain it with evidence. Whilst there will always be some sceptics out there who will no doubt still quickly pass over my CV due to the mixture on there, I take comfort in telling myself that these are clearly not the people I want to work with and are very rigid in their approaches. I want to work in businesses where inquiring minds are encouraged, and where there is a culture of lifelong learning and development, and where experimentation is appreciated. One of the benefits of working for myself being I can encourage all of this.