Why Generalists are Going to Thrive! How to Learn Anything Faster

in essay •  last month  (edited)

Due to the constant persuasion​ by my friend @ReverseAcid, I have finally decided to give Steemit a try.
And Here's my first piece.


Today, to be in the top 1% of your chosen field is a very challenging task. All the odds are stacked against you and it can get extremely lonely. Best selling author Malcolm Gladwell says “10,000 hours is the magic number for greatness”. This rule states that it takes at least 10,000 hours to achieve mastery in any field. If you want to win the French open or play for the Indian cricket team it is going to take years of practice. One should be willing to repeat the same task an infinite number of times until they have perfected it. Only then do they even stand a chance to compete in the big leagues. This is a very strenuous task and is not an easy feat to accomplish.

But as any article would suggest, there’s an alternative. There always is.

To understand how all of this is possible you need to learn about the 80:20 rule also known as the Pareto principle. According to this principle, 80% of the output is produced only by 20% input. It seems like this law exists almost everywhere, from how wealth is distributed in this world to who you choose to spend your time with. For instance, if you run a VC fund, generally 20% of your portfolio companies comprise of 80% of your returns; or how 80% of the time you hang out with the same 20% of the people; 80% of the time you wear the same 20% of your clothes. Let's try to put this principle to use. We’ll take a simple example, suppose you are preparing for a university exam. Here, the output is marks you get and the input is the effort in hours. Assume that for you to get 99% output you need to prepare for 20 hours. Applying the Pareto principle, for you to get 80% output you need to prepare for around 5 hours.

I’ll break it down for you, It’s easy to pass an exam by studying for 3 hours it requires relatively less effort. To score 80% is harder, the student needs to study for 5-6 hours and to score 99% a significant amount of effort is required because he/she has to study for around 20 hours. The output and effort are not linear after 80% mark it takes a lot of effort to increase the output even by 1%. The level of difficulty keeps increasing exponentially. This is precisely why it is so hard to be the top 1% of the world at something.

To give you a sense of how to apply it in your own life, suppose you are learning a language, 80% of the time we use the same 20% of the words. According to Oxford, the most frequently used word in English is “the”. One of every 16 words in English is "the". So, if you learn these frequently used words you can learn the language faster and much better, this is a common technique a polyglot (one who knows several languages) uses. It takes relatively less effort and time to learn 80% of the language but to achieve 100% it might take a lifetime.


Before we dive deeper, it is important to understand that the Pareto principle doesn’t always take the 80:20 form it can take the 70:30 or 90:10 form in some cases.

So now that you know 80% about this principle (Yeah, you really do)

How do you apply this to become a generalist?​ What I mean by a generalist here is someone who isn’t just a dabbler but has a strong understanding of two or more fields.

There is something common between all the great people Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Richard Feynman, Aristotle, Charles Darwin, Da Vinci. All of them are polymaths. What is a polymath you may ask?​. According to Wikipedia, “ A polymath is an individual whose knowledge spans a significant number of subjects ”.

Steve Jobs was a creative genius and a designer at heart. Steve dropped out of Reed College, before dropping out he took a calligraphy class at Reed where he learned all about typography. Fast forward to his time at Apple, while building the Macintosh. Quoting his famous commencement speech at Stanford:

“It all came back to me and we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them. “

Jobs fueled the design revolution and has a huge influence on the UI and UX used today. He was among the first to revamp and redesign machines (Hardware) and make them look slim, sleek and beautiful. Jobs was obsessed with the design and aesthetics, the look and feel of the product not only on the outside, even on the inside (how the circuit board looked) This combination of hardware, software, and design revolutionized the industry and has changed the way we interact with gadgets. Today, we take it for granted that all our laptops, smartphones, etc must be functional and look beautiful. It has become an industry standard.

Take the case of Elon Musk, he has accomplished so much because of his depth of knowledge in different fields and how he synthesized it to create value. From finance (Paypal), energy (Solar City), Rocket science and Physics (Space X) to automobiles (Tesla) he has a very good understanding of all these fields and by aggregating his knowledge he was able to create these multi-billion dollar industries and businesses.

To give you more perspective, let’s take a look at a more realistic example. Today I can hire a chartered accountant ( ~ CPA in the USA) easily. Because it is commoditized, it’s incredibly difficult for you to differentiate yourself unless you are a brilliant accountant (belong to the top 5%). So because of this, your bargaining power is very poor. But an accountant with good content creation skills or writing skills can add more value. He can differentiate himself from the rest, He has a higher chance of getting employed and has much better bargaining power over the employer. Because he can articulate his thoughts better, he can help create high-quality content to grow your brand or he can be a teacher and skill the employees in your organization or he can be a thought leader, help build your company’s reputation and indirectly drive more business.

A study was conducted by researchers at Columbia Business School and Tulane University. The researchers studied students who graduated from top U.S. MBA programs and then went on to pursue investment banking. They constructed a detailed profile of each person, including grades and work history before, during, and after business school. Their analysis reveals:

“Specialists were definitely penalized by the market. Not only were they less likely to receive multiple offers, but they were offered smaller signing bonuses. In some cases, the specialists earned up to $48,000 less than their generalist peers.”

Here, specialists are defined as people who before their MBA were in the investment banking and finance industries and Generalists are students who had worked in different industries and tried different roles pre-MBA.

A CEO or a Leader of an organization should ideally be a generalist. He cannot afford to say that he doesn't understand HR or Finance or Legal. His entire day’s agenda is meeting people from various departments, understanding the challenges they are facing and facilitate problem-solving.

Whether you are looking for a job or want to run a multi-million dollar company, you’re better of being a generalist in most cases.

In some cases, specialists are highly valued and needed. Like for instance, a heart surgeon or criminal lawyer, you wouldn't want your cardiologist to be a generalist, you would prefer him having an impeccable track record of executing the same surgery successfully multiple times. So it's pretty obvious that you would prefer a highly specialized doctor or top-notch lawyer when your life's in danger and not generalist doctor or lawyer.

To become a generalist one must strive to achieve mastery ( top 25%) in two or more fields. So instead of trying to be an expert ( top 1%) in one field our entire life, we are better off trying our hand at different fields. Who knows what’s in store for you? Maybe you're really good at it and you find it riveting. As human beings, we are capable of doing so many things. Why restrict ourselves to one field? It’s a crime if you don’t do justice to your potential.

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” ― Robert A. Heinlein

Another perk of being a generalist is that it always keeps things interesting, you are not stuck to one field for your entire life. A person can have multiple interests, finance and tech (fin-tech) or biology and medical sciences (biomedical). Because you are exploring different fields you will never be bored as there is always something new and totally different to learn each day. In today's modern age, it is easier than ever to learn about a particular subject there are so many free resources, online courses, podcasts, and books out there on literally every topic in the world. Also, it is highly advisable to make sure technology is one among those two or three fields you wish to pursue.

A significant edge generalists have over specialists is that their risk of being disrupted is low. Take Kodak, a company that was ultra-focused and did not deviate from their core product film cameras, look at where they are now. The risk of disruption is very high when you are ultra-specialized especially in the technology domain.

It becomes difficult to see the bigger picture if you are highly specialized. Generalists are better equipped to see the bigger picture. Someone somewhere else in the world else is connecting two different fields and creating value because of which soon you might become obsolete.


Look at companies like Netflix and Airbnb, how they are disrupting industries by combining different fields and creating enormous value. The world is changing faster than ever. To put this into perspective, there was no iPhone or Uber or Amazon Web Services 11 years ago. All these products/services were emerging fields or yet to be invented and today, they have become commoditized.

To survive in this fast-paced world, we must learn to adapt or we will perish. Generalists can adapt much better than specialists because their risk of being disrupted is low comparatively. We must take inspiration from cockroaches, they are the most adaptable species on the planet. Their tolerance levels are very high. It is said that they could plausibly survive even the aftermath of a nuclear war.

“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.” -Charles Darwin

Most often, what works in one field can work in another, we should be able to draw analogies from different fields and apply what we have learned. Generalists can connect dots better. Charles Babbage’s invention of computing engines was inspired by his knowledge of the process of manufacturing textiles where a loom was controlled by a chain of cards. Ford’s idea of the assembly line was inspired by continuous-production methods used by flour mills, breweries, and meatpacking plants. Both Charles and Ford were capable of connecting things from different fields and applying it.

A very important thing to understand is that you can’t just dabble in different fields. You should be able to synthesize information and apply what you learnt in one field to others, then and only then can you create value. Otherwise, you will just be ‘a know it all’ , who can’t add any value.

Think about it, being a generalist is like diversification of your assets. Would you put all your eggs in the same basket? Would you want to spend your entire life’s resources doing one thing?

What if it gets disrupted or you are not good enough? If you diversify your time and effort there’s a better chance you will succeed and it is less risky. Invest your time and resources wisely.


By @SanthimNahar

Special Thanks to the folks @ReverseAcid for pushing me to write this.

Authors get paid when people like you upvote their post.
If you enjoyed what you read here, create your account today and start earning FREE STEEM!
Sort Order:  

Brilliant premise, analysis and delivery. I completely agree with everything you wrote concerning the debate between being a generalists or specialists. I have always strived to be a generalist and it has led to a much richer life. If you are interested, I republished my book, Pardon The Disruption, The Future You Never Saw Coming. (On Steem for free). You might find it an interesting thought journey in line with your approach to life. https://steemit.com/technology/@clayrawlings/pardon-the-disruption-introduction. Keep up the good work.

Hey @clayrawlings,

Thank you :) I'll check it out.


Greetings and welcome to Steemit.

According to the abilities, desires and needs of each one.
You may prefer to be a generalist or specialist.

For example, in many countries, young people learn a job after graduating from high school, which allows them to earn some money so as not to be a burden in their student years.
This would make them generalists and give them the opportunity to assess whether they are so interested in the specialized studies they wish to carry out.

I think being a specialist has a lot to do with the passion that drives an activity, and you love it so much that you do it all your life and you don't care what happens around you.

If you want to specialize in something just for economic well-being, and you don't have the passion and obsession for your career, you will never really be a specialist, just go to another student.

I am a generalist by vocation, but I admire the passionate specialists who enrich all areas.

To be a true specialist in any area requires a lot of grit, determination, and practice. You can specialize easily but to be an expert in that field is quite difficult and I believe in cases like this where you really like the field, but aren't in the top 5 %, it's better you try your hand at some other field.

And yes I agree with the fact that the passion and obsession specialists have is tremendous and it's truly admirable.

Hi @santhimnahar I know your post from @ReverseAcid this post is quite long, but still good work spirit

Posted using Partiko Android

Hey @anitacarolina,

Thanks a lot. Always appreciate feedback :)

It is easy to see this in action when you start learning / practicing in different fields. Getting to that base level of competency is much easier than mastering something (and of course, mastery is a never ending journey!), and then what you learn in one field often ends up applying to another field and even compounding that effect. Really impressive first post, I thought it was very well written and argued. Welcome to Steem!

Hey @carlgnash,

Thank you for your kind words.

A well written article. I think you did a great work in your first post. Keep writing nice posts.

Hey @akdx,

Thank you for your kind words :)

Welcome bro! It was really a nice work.

Posted using Partiko Android

A very well-written and thought-provoking article. Not a bad way to start off on Steemit.

Keep up the good work. A bit of advice ... You should familiarize yourself with the "EDITOR" function. That way, you can make your post a bit more attractive and a bit more reader-friendly, by adding various headings and sub-headings.

Best of luck on this excellent platform!

Yes, @majes.tytyty thanks for your suggestion. Trying to understand and learn who this markdown works.
Thanks a lot :)

One helpful point (if you do not already know it). ...

After you click the "Pencil (Create a post)" icon, and BEFORE you insert any text or images into your post-to-be, you will see the word "EDITOR", at the top-right corner of the "Write your story ..." box.

Click on that word "EDITOR," and it will activate a small menu of several icons that you can use to format your post.

(If you do not click "Editor," and start inserting text or anything else in the "Write your story" box, the option to choose "Editor" will disappear. Strange, but true.

Best of luck!

An excellent post. I can relate to what you have written with my workplace experience.

As the world becomes more and more interconnected, it becomes imperative for even specialist to have a wider knowledge of fields outside their specialization. For instance, a criminal lawyer without good IT knowledge will be completely lost if he/she were to handle cyber crimes.

Yes @devann. I believe there are some skills which are imperative irrespective of your career. Skills like writing, effective communication and being technology friendly are extremely crucial today.

EXCELLENT first post! Keep up the good work!

(Sincerely, a successful generalist!)

This post was shared in the Curation Collective Discord community for curators, and upvoted and resteemed by the @c-squared community account after manual review.
@c-squared runs a community witness. Please consider using one of your witness votes on us here

Congratulations @santhimnahar! You have completed the following achievement on the Steem blockchain and have been rewarded with new badge(s) :

You published your First Post
You got a First Vote

You can view your badges on your Steem Board and compare to others on the Steem Ranking
If you no longer want to receive notifications, reply to this comment with the word STOP

Vote for @Steemitboard as a witness to get one more award and increased upvotes!

hello @santhimnahar,

Thank you for being persuaded to try writing in steemit.

You know what, you gave me an idea- though specializing in one field might be good- even awesome for some people, it does not hurt to be good in 2 or more fields because as you have said, at the end of the day, they do correlate.

Hello @nurseanne84,

I'm glad I was able to give you some kind of intuition.