Why Specialists Are Grumpy and Generalists Are Happy

Bob Sutton posts about why generalists are less grumpy than specialists. The answer is somewhat intuitive but worth remembering: when your eggs are in more baskets you mitigate the risk of being crushed when any one basket blows up. He quotes:

Generalists, people with moderately strong attachments to many ideas, should be hard to interrupt, and once interrupted, should have weaker, shorter negative reactions since they have alternative paths to realize their plans. Specialists, people with stronger attachments to fewer ideas, should be easier to interrupt, and once interrupted, should have stronger, more sustained negative reactions because they have fewer alternative pathways to realize their plans. Generalists should be the the upbeat, positive people in the profession while specialists should be their grouchy, negative counterparts (page 526).

The citation is from organizational theorist Karl Weick, who has also argued that the right attitude for learning and creativity is to "argue as if you are right and listen as if you are wrong."

2 comments on “Why Specialists Are Grumpy and Generalists Are Happy
  • Few will dispute this hypothesis. But that’s where it ends.

    You’ll notice that the generalists are never complete by themselves and are inherently insecure in the absence of a specialist.

    So here’s my little twist. A generalist is certainly happier so long as a specialist is around.

    I think we could settle for a hybrid. Something like a generalizing specialist or a specializing generalist. Hybrids are much more effective than either specialists or generalists (probably happier too since they retain the best of both).

    The best managers are often hybrids, or at least actively are trying to become so since environment around them have become truly agile. There is still room for the hybrids to evolve back as one or the other in times of need and then switch to the dual mode, so that the world is not deprived of either.

    Robert A. Heinlein said it best: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, 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.”

    But I have a question – has this organism evolved yet ?

  • however, specialists tend to get paid better than generalists.

    (speaking as a specialist who’s become more of a generalist… and less well-paid than if i’d remained a programmer 😉

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