Specialist vs. Generalist : Horses for the Courses #SpecialistVsGeneralist

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This week Indispire asks would you rather be a specialist or a generalist? Future society will need specialists or polymaths? Your thoughts on this debate which is going on since ‘Philosophy’ branched out to know more and more about less and less

Thoughts on this debate which is going on since ‘Philosophy’ branched out to know more and more about less and less

The genesis of the debate between a generalist and a specialist most likely has its beginning at the way our ancestors started looking for answer to one of the most fundamental philosophical questions of life – what is the truth of life?

In the vedic civilization, seekers looked inwards, and proclaimed, “God is one, people call it by different names.” More recently, hardly a hundred and fity years before, Sri Rama Krishna said there are different stairs to reach the roof top. No matter whichever one you choose, once you are there everything becomes one.

In the ancient Greece, seekers looked at the starlit sky and wanted to unravel the mystery of nature. Instead of studying the instrument that is mind, scientists started looking deeper into the objects outside. From the original quest, we now have several disciplines exploring physical, chemical and biological sciences. Each discipline is further subdivided into many subdivisions. Guardians of each division and subdivision, are holding fort in the name of protecting their speciality. The most advanced of physical disciplines is the discipline of physics. We now know what is beyond an atom. Deeper we look, the boundary between form and formless becomes blurred. As convnentionally uneducated, illiterate, Sri Rama Krishna would give an analogy of ice and water. Water will assume a solid form and become ice, ice will melt and become formless water.

Would you rather be a generalist or a specialist?

As we move from the quest of truth to application of principles of science into our life, we find that our understanding of the principles of science has resulted in inventions that have made our lives easier and to a great extent better. As we look into the debate from the perspective of our lives, I think a saying that rightly applies to the question goes like this,“horses for the courses,” so one should go for either a specialist or a generalist, depending upon our need at a given time.

Using the analogy of cricket, an opening batsman is a specialist, so is a fast bowler, or a spin bowler. Does that mean we do not need an all rounder, a generalist who can do a bit of bowling and score a few valuable runs? We all know the answer. In earlier times, a specialist batsman would not be a good fielder, a specialist bowler would not score more than five runs in his best day. I think those days are gone. Now, we expect our specialist bowler should be in the frame of mind to contribute at leat twenty runs to the total, and a specialist batsman to shave at least twenty runs from the opponent’s total.

In our work place, we find two kinds of people. One set of people are specialists and they confine themselves to their subject matter only. On the other hand, there will be a set of people who would have a broad understanding of a variety of subjects. These set of employees tend to move up faster in the organizational hierarchy, because of their ability to offer opinion a broader area of operation. It is commonly seen that employees to a broadbased education and/or qualification tend to be managers of an R&D organization, whereas, a specialist remains a subject area authority, a scientist. During a training workshop on evaluation of different employees in an organization, the instructor had introduced us to the concept of Hay score. According to this, Albert Einstein and George W Bush (Jr.), the then president of the US, fell at the two extremes of the Hay scale of evaluation. Prof Einstein was an extreme specialist, whereas President of the US is/was an extreme generalist. While Einstein cannot take a decision without completing his experiment, US president has to take majority of his decisions with less than 40% information available on a subject matter.

Future society would need more specialists

A direct effect of specialist vs generalist debate can be seen in the discipline of medicine.  Worldover, people prefer Western Medicine which essentially reduces human body into distinct systems and creates specialists for each system. We no longer prefer the holistic approaches of traditional medical disciplines. A more generalized lifestyle of eating right, sleeping right, doing regular physical exercise can reduce our need to visit a specialist drastically. But our lifestyle has become such that it is difficult to bring regularity and health in our daily lives.

May be fifty years before, our life used to be simpler, a general physician would be able to solve most of our problems. Nowadays, we want doctors who are specialists in their respective fields. Sometimes, not happy with the service of a specialist, we want to visit  a super specialist. At the same time, we do not like what a specialist advices, because he charges more money, orders expensive tests, sometime to know and other times to make more money. Inspite of extensive and expensive enquiry, a specialist also goes wrong. We lose money as well as remain unwell. Still, we have no choice when we have a heart attack, or stroke or a kidney failure, we have to go to a specialist.

As we become more prosperous, we are moving from the domain of physical illness to psychological illness. We have a specialist who can advice us on sleep, another on depression, another may guide us on psychiatric problems. List goes on. Despite so many specialists, are we any healthier?

In summary, we are moving towards an era of more specialists, whether we like it or not. Those who would prefer to follow a different approach / lifestyle will become outdated. Our relentless pursuit of seeking out mysteries of the outside world and technologies that will emerge from the pursuit will certainly make our lives easier. With technological advance, we would need more and more specialist who will understand the technology and who will be able to solve problems associated with technology. While our lives change with technology, will humans become qualitatively different? With a lot of free time in hand, and with most of the human jobs taken over by technology, what will a man do with all the free time? They say an “An Idle Mind is a Devil’s Workshop!” With access to technology and availability of free time what will our new devil do?

I think eventually, it is upto us humans to simplify our lives and adopt a more generalised lifestyle. Come to think of it, humans have exhausted our exploration of mountains, oceans, and deserts. Now either we have to dive deep into our own psyche or go into outer space for greater thrill and adventure.

The present post is written in response to Indispire prompt of Indiblogger. More posts on the topic may be found here.

Read and download your free copy of Desert Plant an e-book published as part of #BlogchatterEbook.

12 thoughts on “Specialist vs. Generalist : Horses for the Courses #SpecialistVsGeneralist

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    1. Thank you for reading. We are making life more and more complicated. As most processes are computer dependent, no ordinary person can fix them. Generalists are looked with disdain. But in an office, most managers, read MBAs, are not specialists. They earn in crores and take decision.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Unfortunately, even when it comes to choice for MBA, it is IIT grads who are preferred in comparison to commerce graduates. May be not at lower level but certainly at the higher level of management.
        So many times, we find that things don’t work because the “system” is not working or there is server issue. we are so reliant on technology, humans are simply running the system.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. True. But an IIT graduate with an IIM MBA managing HR or business may not be much of a specialist anymore. He becomes a generalist.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Philosophy means love of knowledge. In ancient times all knowledge was studied under philosophy. Later on philosophy narrowed down to obscure principles about nature of life and universe. As the area of knowledge increased, specialization was needed. In a way every one is specialist. Some specialist only in one thing, some others in multiple things. Now a days a single person cannot master all available knowledge as was the case in ancient times.

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    1. There is a difference between eastern and western ways. One is holistic other is reductionist. We have adopted reductionist approach. That is why need for specialists. Reductionist approach has created system that has made life easy. But it has also its limit in terms of benefit.

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