You Don’t Have to Specialize to Be an Expert

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Specialists have an advantage in this world. They likely always will.

The typical corporation is a complicated assembly line, and assembly lines need machines optimized for one single step in the process.

I was never destined to be one of those machines.

I got my degree in chemistry, but only after taking courses in communications, accounting, astrophysics, ecology, programming, and multiple other disciplines.

Over my career, I have worked in hospitality, advertising, and chemical manufacturing. I couldn’t tell you which was my favorite because they were all special to me. While present in one of those fields, no one doubted my passion for what I was doing, but I was never destined to stay with any of those positions.

I was not a specialist. I was never going to be a specialist. But these companies only wanted specialists, so I needed to find an alternate path.

Polymath, generalist, renaissance person —whatever you want to call us, we are strangers in a strange land. Specialists don’t know what to do with us, so we have to take charge of our own careers.

Ready to learn how to retain your polymath nature in a world of specialists? Of course, you’re ready to learn — you’re a polymath.

Learn the Right Skills

There are certain skills that — while useful to the general population — are absolutely essential to a polymath. I’m working on an exhaustive list for an upcoming article. For now, here are a few of the most important ones. Notice that these tend to be soft skills.

  • Learning to learn — Your edge as a polymath is in the breadth of your knowledge. The faster you can pick up more skills, the more valuable you are. Learn how to go from zero to proficient as quickly as possible, and make sure that your learning methods have you retaining the information for a long time to come.
  • Problem-solving — A specialist becomes very proficient with a hammer, but a polymath can use every tool in the toolbox. When the problem obviously needs a hammer or a screwdriver, specialists are the right choice. When it’s not obvious what tool to use, a polymath is needed. In other words, specialists create solutions, but polymaths solve problems.
  • Selling yourself — Companies already have buckets for specialists. Thus, all the specialist needs to do is prove that they fit nicely into that bucket. Companies don’t have buckets for polymaths. This makes you an inherently riskier proposition and starts you at a disadvantage. Your sales skills need to be enough to overcome that barrier.
  • Empathy — The better you can relate to a customer, a hiring manager, or anyone else, the better you will be at problem-solving and selling yourself. In the same way that you, as a polymath, have a broader toolset for approaching problems, you also have a broader toolset for relating to the way someone thinks or feels. You just need to practice it like any other skill.
  • Communication — Your understanding of a problem is going to be unique. You need to be able to convey it to others in a way that they will understand. This means both written and verbal speaking skills, presentation skills, storytelling, and a slew of other techniques. The more unique a story is, the harder it is to communicate. Once you get them across though, unique stories are also the most memorable.
  • Research – Even specialists need to look up answers. If you don’t believe me, ask a programmer how often they visit StackOverflow. As polymaths, we are even less likely to have deep technical answers memorized. Worse, we are less likely to know where to look for answers because each specialization has its own online communities. The only way forward is to become a master in google-fu. Be one with the search engine, young padawan.

Take Advantage of the Pareto Principle

No matter how good you are at a technical skill, someone else will be better. The best specialists in each field achieve god-like mastery of the topic. I have spent days searching for a coding bug only to have a more senior programmer find it in 5 minutes.

Polymaths tend not to obtain that level of mastery in any one skill, but the Pareto principle makes that okay. According to the Pareto principle — also known as the 80/20 rule — 80% of the value from a skill is gained by being 20% proficient in that skill.

Specialists devote their lives to completely mastering a small set of skills. As polymaths, we are more likely to gain 20% proficiency in a much larger set of skills.

If I can get 80% of the value from 2 skills, that is better than getting 100% of the value from 1 skill, right?

Not in a world of specialists, it isn’t. More on that in the next section.

Before that, though, a word on the power of having multiple skills. Having proficiency in more skills means that we need to spend more time

  1. Choosing an appropriate skill
  2. Forging the connections between skills

For (1), my primary suggestion is that you remember that part of learning a skill is learning when to use it. A skill that you can’t figure out how and when to apply is a useless skill.

When it comes to (2), special devotion is necessary. This is an ability forged in creativity, problem-solving, and pattern recognition. It comes from an understanding of both application and theory.

The ability to see the connections between disparate skills — to forge them into a more powerful meta-skill — is the real power of a polymath.

If you wield each of your tools separately, a specialist in each field will always be better than you. That’s why you should instead achieve sufficient proficiency in multiple skills, find their complementary nature, and forge them into something greater than the sum of their parts. If done right, this may even allow you to beat a specialist at their own game.

For the D&D aficionados in the room: yes, I’m talking about multiclassing.

Find Jobs That Reward Diversity of Thought

Companies understand specialists. If they need a programmer, hiring the best programmer out there is probably better than hiring someone that is 20% proficient in each of programming, nuclear engineering, and cattle ranching.

Most of the time, this is not a mindset you can change, no matter how many times you mention Pareto.

So what can you do?

Give up on those positions — maybe even on those companies. Don’t give me that line about it being your dream company either. Your dream company wouldn’t force you to change your very essence.

Find a position or a company that will value the diversity of thought that comes from your polymath nature. This is not something that companies actively advertise, so you are going to have to do the legwork.

  • Talk to other polymaths — Find others that have walked this path. They may have ideas of companies that you can talk to. Even the best trailblazers know when to borrow a map.
  • Look for unique or new positions and teams – Most positions are incredibly well-bounded, leaving no room for a polymath to make it their own. Uncertainty is your friend to an extent. Everything I’ve written in the past about, for instance, data scientist positions being ill-defined works in your favor as a polymath. Hiring managers have a hard time finding the perfect specialist if they have uncertainty about what that employee will do. Just make sure that this uncertainty is concerning the methodologies they need rather than the underlying problem. You don’t want to fill a useless position.
  • Go to smaller companies –  Smaller companies and startups can’t afford to have specialists for everything. They need people that can wear many hats. Doesn’t that sound like the perfect opportunity for a polymath?
  • Consider entrepreneurship – Smaller companies require you to wear more hats, and what is smaller than a company of 1? Even if you bring on partners, you’ll still each be doing the work of multiple departments. Entrepreneurship practically screams out for polymaths.
  • Find positions that value uniqueness – Writing is my favorite go-to example here. A unique background makes for a unique voice, and unique voices are valued in the writing community. Even though writers usually pick a specific niche, a polymath mindset is often more valuable than mastery of the niche itself. Product managers, consultants, and other positions with a heavier-than-usual problem-solving component can also be good fits for a polymath.

Other Suggestions

Here are a couple of other random — and admittedly somewhat obvious — tips for maintaining your polymath nature.

  • Read more – I fooled myself into thinking that graduate school didn’t suffocate the polymath in me. I avoided specializing as much as was possible, but I failed in one crucial way — I was only reading papers and books in my field. A polymath needs to read a wider range of material. In the past few months, I have read books about political history, gang crime, communication, racism, leadership, and the memoirs of both a first lady and a woman that grew up in a Mormon survivalist family. That is a wider range than I read throughout my 5 years of graduate school. Those lost reading years may well be my single greatest regret.
  • Diversify your network – Make a point of meeting people in a wide range of disciplines. This can be accomplished online or offline — through meetups or friends. Aside from the obvious advantages of networking generally, maintaining a diverse network forces you to understand a wide range of thought processes. My marketing friends, my data scientist friends, and my farming friends all approach the world differently. My perspective has grown into an amalgam of these and many other worldviews, and I cherish its uniqueness above all.

Final Thoughts

Being a polymath isn’t easy. If you want the easy route, you should specialize. But if specialization doesn’t work for you, I want you to know that there is another path.

Academics have recognized the need for interdisciplinary studies for many years now. Fields like bioinformatics and behavioral economics have shown the power of combining multiple fields to create something wholly original. This is what polymaths do.

Here’s what I’m hoping you take away from this article.

  • Some skills to focus on as a polymath: learning to learn, problem-solving, selling yourself, empathy, communication, and research
  • How the Pareto principle advantages polymaths
  • Ways to find and identify a polymath-friendly job

Most importantly, I want you to know that you are not alone. There are many of us on this same journey. We provide real value to society. We are interdisciplinary experts even if we choose not to be experts in any single topic.

Never be ashamed to be a polymath.

Never be ashamed to be you.

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