If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.Jerry Seinfeld
Sure, it’s not ideal to take everything a comedian says seriously, but the punchline above (and the context in which Jerry said it) was an exception. And throughout my career, and later through the art and practice of jiu-jitsu, after much observation, I have come to believe that Jerry wasn’t joking at all.
In an era where everyone seems to be specializing in something or the other, the most reliable way to stand out is to generalize. Of course, you’re better off specializing in cases where there’s too much to do or learn from. (I will get to this in the postscript of this note.)
Most people confuse a generalist with generic, which are different concepts. A generalist dives deep enough to pass off as an expert before moving on to something else that interests them. Most people would say that’s inefficient and equivalent to being the jack of all trades and a master of none.
I hear you, but allow me to elaborate.
Suppose you are a human resource (H.R.) professional; you can either become a generalist or a specialist focusing on recruitment, staffing, rewards & recognition or other aspects of the profession. And if you’ve noticed industry trends, there aren’t many H.R. professionals with a career path that leads them to become a CEO of an organization. Heck, organizations these days are even filling the Chief HR officer’s positions with people having a diverse business experience than purely H.R.
And here’s why that’s the case — most H.R. professionals, even the generalists, are comfortable specializing in what they’re already doing. So, we have legions of H.R. professionals doing what they have always been doing, and then they wonder why they don’t have a seat at the “table.”
Here’s what they must do instead — get to know every aspect of the business by working on them on top of their core day-to-day responsibilities. That’s how one gains practical experience. Do this long enough, and you can’t help but become a generalist-at-large who understands the business inside out than just an H.R. person who’s stuck with administration, processes, and policies.
Of course, this doesn’t apply to just H.R. professionals but to anyone who aspires to a leadership career. The key is taking the initiative, taking risks, having some skin in the game, and building a portfolio of your work, including wins, losses, stalls, and learnings.
It’s a lot of work, but whoever said this would be easy was lying to you. The alternative is to, of course, stay specialized and mediocre in the long run.
P.S. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is ever-evolving, which is great for the sport, but not so great for athletes, especially recreational athletes (like yours truly). On the one hand, we have thousands of techniques and counters to learn, practice and apply under duress, and on the other hand, there are a set of fundamentals and concepts that takes little time to develop but a lifetime to master. And here’s the biggest irony — the best athletes in the world focus on the fundamentals, not fancy stuff that looks great on Instagram but can’t be used in a fight or on the streets.