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Why Being a Specialist Can Hurt Your Career Success


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For a very long time, we have been told to maximize our professional usefulness. We should concentrate our efforts on becoming really good at one thing.

In short, specialization reigned. With few exceptions, the most sought-after professionals in their fields were those who were the best at what they did. The best engineers are the ones who got the jobs at Apple and Tesla. The best quants were those who got the jobs at Renaissance and SAC. The best chefs have worked at Noma and Per Se. This maxim held true in most areas, and so people were encouraged to become really good in one area at the expense of all others. In fact, a specialization in specialization took place. You were no longer an engineer, you were a DevOps engineer. You were no longer a chef, you were a pastry chef. And any time spent not perfecting this area of ​​expertise was wasted time.

Related: Is Focusing on a Specific Niche Really That Important?

And while historically these people were well paid, lately that doesn’t always seem to be the case. In fact, these days classifying your talents into a specialty can actually hamper your path to associated acclaim, accolades, and monetary bounties. Why is that? Neither Steve Jobs nor Elon Musk were the best engineers in their organizations. They weren’t the best managers either. Or the best designers. Or really the best at anything. However, they have developed a high level of expertise in multiple, often very disparate areas of knowledge. There are few people like Steve Jobs, who was a gifted designer, a product visionary, an incredible judge of talent, and an inspiring (if challenging) manager all rolled into one.

Strangely, our education system and our cultural fabric often encourage people to get really good at one thing at the expense of everything else. Meanwhile, studies suggest that it is those who embrace a diversity of interests who achieve the greatest feats in entrepreneurship, science and the arts. This practice, known as skill stacking, emphasizes that it is much more unusual to be in the top 10% at several extremely disparate skills than the top 1% at a single skill. The more dissimilar the skills, the less likely you are to find people who reflect the same combination of expertise. It can make an individual not only unique in terms of what they can do, but they are also more likely to view problems and situations with a unique perspective. While most entrepreneurs in the IT space approached it from an engineering background, Jobs approached it from both an engineering and design perspective. In turn, he was able to build something that those with a narrower technical frame of reference were simply not equipped to do.

Therefore, the prescription for any budding entrepreneur who moves the world is a simple two-pronged process that first embraces the diversity of existing interests, then goes further to cultivate new interests with intentionality.

Related: Why Being an Expert in Your Field Isn’t Enough in Today’s Fast-Changing Workplace

Embrace your diverse interests

Too often, when speaking with budding entrepreneurs, they unashamedly admit that they also have hobbies that don’t seem to have any direct application to the business they’re building. They are quick to reassure me that they rarely visit these hobbies, in brief moments off from the all-consuming effort of building their business. It’s hard not to grimace when you hear this banal chorus. Although not always immediately apparent, it is often these exact interests that help inform the core of what makes their product different and special. A fintech entrepreneur with a passing interest in human behavioral psychology is almost certainly likely to see it inform their product vision in a key way to set themselves apart from competitors. Diverse interests do not prevent success. Instead, they are often a key reason for success.

Commit to learning something new

Almost everyone has a hobby that they’ve put off for a long time because they “just don’t have enough time.” Between our businesses, our friends, our family, and all the other obligations we can squeeze in, there are never enough hours in the day. entrepreneur under the constant barrage of propaganda from the hustle culture, the idea of ​​spending five hours of their week learning something unrelated to their business may seem criminal. Every entrepreneur should disabuse himself of this notion and commit to a minimum of five hours per week invest in something they have wanted to do but have long put off. At worst, these investments will give the mind a well-deserved respite from the work of building a business. At best, one will learn things and have eureka moments that inform what builds and, with almost surprising frequency, eventually lead to key differentiators.

As entrepreneurs, we all have the ambition to build life-changing businesses. But truly innovative and original ideas are hard to come by. Many smart people put their energy into trying to find the next big thing. Someone who has spent every moment studying finance is not as likely to think of anything completely different than the tens of thousands of others who have done much the same thing. But suppose that same person spent time in finance alongside interpretive dance, social psychology, and architecture. In this case, they are much more likely to have a point of view shared by few, if any, others. These other aspects of their lives will inevitably impact their approach to building a fintech.

So the next time you feel guilty about reading a psychology treatise or signing up for an interpretive dance class, know that these things aren’t distractions, but may very well be the way to make your dreams come true. of an entrepreneur.