How to reframe your confidence as a generalist
We dive into: The 4 Archetypes of a Generalist, a framework for squiggly career progression, I'll then spin these into real-world examples of what a *delightful* generalist career flow could look like
And then... a pinch of spice 🌶️ I'll be busting the myth that generalists can't reach mastery
Tzvi is back with another stellar article — “How to reframe your confidence as a generalist”. This essay is chocka block full of examples, practical advice and further reading.
Let’s dive in 🤿
🦜 Your task! Play your part in amplifying the generalist movement simply by screenshotting your fave snippet from this essay & sharing your thoughts on socials (tag: @generalistworld)
In my last article, I introduced a new word for most people—the esemplastic ability generalists have to solve problems by making connections between seemingly different things.
I now want to turn to something more internal.
Since generalists often take on new roles throughout their careers that are dissimilar, or sometimes seemingly disconnected to their previous roles, they can lack the confidence that comes with having already done something many times before.
This lack of confidence can hinder us in many ways:
It can show itself subtly in job interviews in ways we are not aware of
It can be obvious to coworkers with whom we are working
It can ever present in our minds in the demonic form of imposter syndrome
Traditional career wisdom tells us we have to pick something and practice it over and over again to be great — so what is there to be confident about when we are regular newbies?
✍️ I’d like to suggest a new way of looking at confidence that is both healthier and more sustainable.
Highly technical and specific skills rightfully require many repetitions before one can acquire the confidence that matches the technical acumen to execute them.
For example, you wouldn’t want a surgeon or structural engineer to gain confidence before they had performed many surgeries or designed many bridges with oversight, right?
By contrast, the skills generalists need to excel in the jobs they pursue are by definition skills that are highly transferable between organizations and industries—skills like operations, project management, people skills, and problem-solving.
⏲️ Time for a reframe
As a generalist, you have faced many unfamiliar problems in the past, and you understand how to act with the information you have, and change course if things are not going as you wished.
This meta-skill is one of the most important things we generalists bring with us—the ability to work through things based on what’s known, and pivot as necessary.
If you think about it, this can provide more confidence at times than having done something before because unexpected things always arise.
If your confidence is derived only from having been in similar situations in the past, you will be in for a rude awakening when things don’t go as planned—and familiar situations turning unfamiliar is the rule rather than the exception.
April Rinner sums this up nicely: “Over time, the value of your portfolio will increase by your ability to cross-pollinate: To combine and weave together skills from your different experiences in order to gain new insights, tackle new problems, diversify income sources, and serve in new ways”.
🕊️ The Golden Cage Of Specialization
Whether you’re going to head-to-head with somebody with a deeply specialist skillset for a new role, or you’re the only generalist on a team — it’s can be easy to feel like your skillset is ‘less than’ simply because you don’t have the same number of reps as your peers. You’d be forgiven for this giving your confidence a knock.
But what about when we zoom out and look at the bigger picture? When we factor in the world we live in is unpredictable, complex, and fast-changing.
Throughout your career, you’re going to bear witness to so many technological, economic and cultural shifts. Whilst you may not have the same depth of experience as your specialist peers — you bring something uniquely important to the table. The ability to spot patterns, pivot, and be the catalyst for change.
“We tell our kids, “Find what you’re good at, and stick to it.” But what if that industry goes away? What if the kid figures out 10 years after graduation that they hate what they do? With no other skills in the armory, we trap ourselves in the golden cage of specialization. We can only move up and down on a single trajectory.
The world needs specialists. I work with brilliant subject matter experts every day. But specializing is not the only way to get ahead and make a name for yourself, contrary to popular opinion. Businesses need generalists to connect the dots.”
Specialists need generalists, just as much as generalists need specialists. Its not a matter of VS, but PLUS.
Diversity of Thought
I saw this a lot as a physician working in health tech. As physicians, we were trained to practice medicine. Patients can come in with many different kinds of complaints, but they aren’t infinite.
When something is out of your scope, your job is simply to refer to the correct speciality.
Fast-forward to my work in the digital health startup world. I saw clinicians who had the ability to learn new things, live with ambiguity, and change course when needed.
However, we also had clinicians who came from practices that couldn’t handle the world of the unknown. These were intelligent doctors and nurses who probably had great confidence in the hospital or clinic, but when faced with something new, they couldn’t handle the uncertainties and course corrections.
Their confidence took a dive, and they didn’t last very long. The modern world is changing more rapidly than ever, and humanity is encountering new problems as a reflection of these rapid changes.
Because of this, the need for generalists and specialists collaborating and tapping into their unique skillsets is only going to grow.
The Expert Generalist
Orit Gadiesh, who coined the term ‘expert generalist’, describes’ it as:
“Someone who has the ability and curiosity to master and collect expertise in many different disciplines, industries, skills, capabilities, countries, and topics. They then, without necessarily even realizing it, but often by design:
Draw on that palette of diverse knowledge to recognize patterns and connect the dots across multiple areas.
Drill deep to focus and perfect the thinking.”
Build deeper connections with people who are different than them because of understanding of their perspectives.
Build more open networks, which allows them to serve as a connector between people in different groups. According to network science research, having an open network is the #1 predictor of career success.
So generalists, whilst you might feel the ‘confidence wobbles’ when you’re starting anew, remember that what you bring to the table is important. It’s diverse knowledge and perspectives that bridge gaps.
Having the confidence to lean into being comfortable as a newbie, combined with the gift of quick learning = a killer combo that bridges gaps. You have this power. And that’s exactly what it is — a power.
Take your confidence from your ability to live in unfamiliar territory, and you will be well-positioned to be at the bleeding edge of all this change.
About the author:
Tzvi is a board-certified family physician, obesity physician, clinical lipidologist, and founder of Consonant Consulting. His interests include psychology, evolution, and spirituality.Connect with him on LinkedIn or read more of his thoughts on Substack.