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Monday, October 11, 2010

The Search for the 'Purple Squirrel'

For years I've been a proud generalist. Now it seems like the world has finally come around to the point of no return, and the specialists are being forced to change and adapt, taking on more and more tasks, until they become certified in multiple cross-discipline skill sets.

My degree is in Philosophy. The question people always raise is "What job do you get with that?" I often take the time to educate them about my unique perspective. I didn't go to college to get a job, I went to university to complete my education. But most people just don't grok. They think that if you invest $100,000 and four (or more) years in school, you should get a "Return on investment" and that requires a JOB.

Never hire anyone who isn't smarter than you are.

This is an old business quote, that many employers live and die to follow. They only hire people who are reported to be very well trained to provide a specific solution to their particular business problems. They have a need and the employee must solve the problem. But in today's economy, where every problem involves multiple levels of understanding in many fields, the traditional specialists are at a loss. So the employers are looking for 'Purple Squirrels'.

People with cross-discipline training are rare. Who goes to school to be a plumber, and learns how to produce videos? What mechanist was ever taught how to program artificial intelligence. How do you find an electrician with an MBA? But now imagine that you need a computer programmer, an MBA, a video producer, a plumber, and electrician, and a mechanist and you only have the salary for one person. Now you need a generalist.

I'm a generalist, my skills don't limit me to one speciality or another, I know how to think and learn extremely quickly. I like complex systems, I like information, I can see patterns that others don't because I'm naturally curious about very diverse areas of inquiry. Normally, this puts me at a disadvantage, I'm not the 'BEST' at any one skill set, because I've never specialized, but give me a little time and I'll become good at anything.

Because generalists understand the underlying principals of any system or process, they can see the links between otherwise disparate specialties. Give a generalist enough time and they become experts at everything, allowing them to bridge the gaps in communication, and act as hubs of information. This is what is needed in today's business world, because the problems are too complex and interrelated for any one virtuoso. The age of the specialist is over, the age of the Generalist is at hand.

Unfortunately, this is where our systems of education have failed us. Schools and Universities have become so focused upon producing specialists, that they no longer know how to produce generalists. Thus we must suffer a term, while the next generation re-tools. I hope we have that much time left.