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Generalists and Specialists

Guess what?

Coming from someone who is now 17 years out from graduation, I’m happy to report that a Kalamazoo College graduate is much better prepared for the future than conventional wisdom would indicate.

Let me explain why…

In today’s work world – no matter what the industry or field – it’s probably safe to say that people can fall into two camps, depending on the time, place, and role they must fulfill.  These two camps might be broadly called “generalists” and “specialists.”  All of us can wear both of these hats at any given time.

Let’s start with the first, generalists.  These folks are never really experts on anything but are proficient in a lot of things.  Their ultimate value to the organization is their versatility and adaptability, seemingly thriving off new challenges and pursuits.

The other camp might be called “specialists.”  These folks are far more obvious.  They are experts, and have a deep, fundamental knowledge of their domain area, possessing a wealth of technical information, history, and context, along with a proven methodology to achieve their objectives.

Today’s conventional wisdom is that becoming more specialized is the key to succeeding in life and your career.  We hear it over and over again: “we need to improve math and science in public education, everyone must get college degrees with specialized majors compatible with the work world, Liberal Arts degrees are worthless, learn to code, etc.”  The media amplifies this over and over.

Upon first glance, there is strong evidence to back this up.  For better or for worse, we live in a consumer-driven economy where specialized goods and services are the only things that can satisfy increasingly specialized demand.  Our tastes are more refined, more obscure, and more unique.

As a few examples, think of all the kinds of consumer staples we can buy today vs. 20 or 30 years ago – coffee, beer, fresh produce, services on demand – or the amount of relief and health organizations working in the developing world – or the new niches in science and technology like chaos theory in mathematics, string theory in physics, or the Agile/Scrum development methodology in computer software – all of which are sub-sets of sub-sets of a defined domain expertise from the past.

This begs the question: if things are increasingly changing around us, with the long-tail of interests and pursuits growing longer, what happens if we specialize to far into a category that becomes obsolete, or just vanishes, tomorrow?

Since the “Great Recession” of 2008-09, many researchers have pointed out how many older men, especially in manufacturing jobs or specialized white-collar jobs, cannot find work or are not going back to work at all.  Both men and women who have built 30+year careers in quality assurance, state government IT contracting, or aviation simulation (to name just a few) are forced to make dramatic career changes because they can’t afford to retire.

So what does this mean for a Kalamazoo College graduate?  IMHO, you’ll be much better prepared for the world than most college graduates with stock degrees and little or no exposure to other subject areas, experiences, or diversity of people.

Why?  Because you’ll be been trained to stretch your comfort zone, to learn things you normally would not have learned, and to experience life in ways that most people your age will not experience.  This is the tremendous power of a Liberal Arts education, and it’s greatly magnified by the distinctive Kalamazoo College experiential flavor.

You’ll ultimately end up an expert in your given field – just look at all of the K graduates with PhDs – but if circumstances change and you are forced to drop it and start over, you will be much better equipped than most people.  I call this the paradox of Liberal Arts.

Just ask any K College graduate out in the world at least 10 years if they have a unique, distinctive, or contrarian view of their specialty field, industry, field of work, etc.  We were trained to think long, and think critically, and so will you.

After Kalamazoo College, we are still trained as specialists, and we inevitably all emerge into careers that are specialized (to some degree).  But we also emerge as pre-eminent generalists.  We have taken those 2-3 non-major courses; we have studied abroad, or completed a career development internship, or a SIP, that perhaps was our second or third choice.  I did.

When I was in College, I was planning to be a lawyer, and then perhaps a politician.  But I did my CD at a law firm in Washington D.C. and gradually realized (not immediately, mind you) that I did not want to become a lawyer.  I worked on a political campaign for my SIP, and then worked on a few more in the years right after K, but I ultimately realized I didn’t want to go into politics.

Why?  With being a lawyer, it was the misery I saw (and heard) from all of the poor associates who were working 90-100 hour weeks with little end in sight.  With politics, it was even more basic: I didn’t want to work weekends the rest of my life, and I didn’t want to lose my anonymity.  I gradually realized that being anonymous was actually something I greatly valued.

Look around at other programs: how many college students today get this kind of exposure to real-world, life-altering experiences during their undergraduate studies?

I hope you’re beginning to see how K is different.

My K-Plan experience was actually reductive in this sense – it weeded out what I thought I was interested in, and through this process I actually gained more confidence to keep on plugging away until I found something that did inspire me.

Is this how a generalist thinks, approaches life, makes decisions, etc.?  Yes, it is.

Happy to report some 17 years later that I still don’t know what I’m going to do with my life.  But I can tell you that somehow I’ve landed just find.  Somehow, I lived in Silicon Valley for 13 years, built a career in technology sales and business development, climbed and snow skied some of the tallest peaks in North America, traveled around the world, and now, somehow, live in Seattle with my beautiful wife and 1-year old son.

And if you would have told me in 1997, when I graduated, that I would ultimately end up on the West Coast working in technology, I would have told you that you were completely, freaking crazy.  I never imagined I would ever live in San Francisco or Seattle.

The legacy of my K experience for me is that I was just enough of a generalist to move beyond my specialist training to evolve and emerge into a career I had no idea I would end up in.  For me, it was sort of a rolling, incremental wisdom, a clarity of thought that helped me realize more of what I didn’t want to do, rather than provide all the answers to what I actually wanted to do.

And I think this holds true for anyone who graduates from K College.  We are ultimately all generalists, through the sheer exposure of all the various on-campus and off-campus experiences.  The total, cumulative impact of our K experience provides a depth of clarity and overall wisdom that is simply unquantifiable.

So for all of you looking to attend K, don’t let any of the “educational experts” fool you otherwise, you will be extremely well prepared for the world and for the rest of your life.  Being a specialist is important, but only as a starting point.  Being the versatile generalist is what will ultimately lead to a lasting career and meaningful life.