At its core: Remaining curious

Since penning my first blog, I have seen more and more evidence that embracing author and marketing consultant Nancie McDonnell Ruder’s term, Accidental Generalist is not only the right move to position one for success in their career, but can also be beneficial in everything from parenting to pursuing your next job. I, along with Nancie and AlterEgo partner, Justin Kanner, led a panel at Promax in LA a few weeks back on the topic. We met several other creatives excited to finally have a community recognizing and rallying around this unique approach to leadership and seeing a well maintained path towards growth.

In following up, either in person or via LinkedIn, Facebook or Instagram, we have been able to add more real life applications and examples to our own— creating a richer tapestry of what it means to be an Accidental Generalist. And more importantly, how we can use this skill to continually climb the heights to future success. With all this new momentum, I decided to read up on what others are saying about the topic. Because, we are not alone.

Let’s start at the beginning, childhood.

In an article, “Why Parents Should Raise Kids to Be Generalists, Not Specialists” by David Epstein, the author of “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World,” I was exposed to a discussion on why parents should value long-term learning techniques at the expense of short-term improvement. He uses elite athletes Tiger Woods and Roger Federer as examples to illustrate the opposing sides of the argument.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Tiger repeated the same set of skills since he turned two where Roger played multiple sports ranging from wrestling to rugby, never committing to one until he eventually settled on tennis. As we know, they are both champions. But the author stresses that the journey does not need to be that of a specialist to achieve domination in any chosen field. He goes on to quote psychologist Robin Hogarth who explains that golf is a “kind learning environment.” An environment where people are taking turns, information is clear and the next steps are expected every time you play the game. Chess is the same way as it’s all about pattern recognition and this is why it’s so easy to automate (and why computers can often do it better).

Photos courtesy of Pixabay

The journey does not need to be that of a specialist to achieve domination in any chosen field.

But scientists who study team sports like basketball, lacrosse or soccer call them “invasion sports,” where you’re trying to get past another team or player. In these kinds of sports, the action is often too fast and unpredictable for us to react to or predict the outcome. So players of invasion sports need to be able to pick up on anticipatory cues that allow them to start reacting and anticipating their opponent’s action before it’s too late. So for an athlete pursuing a career in tennis (Federer’s recorded serve has an average speed of 130 mph), growing up playing multiple invasion sports is likely what made him poised to dodge… and dominate. 

This makes sense as golf is a series of repetitious and predictable moves where there are far more uncontrolled variables in tennis. So how does this relate to being an Accidental Generalist? When the economy shifts or a company merger/sale occurs and there is uncertainty in the air— everything changes and nothing is predictable. Everyone is looking for ways to “cut back.” And when that happens, trusted production partners like us lose jobs in the short term to the “guy in his basement” or other companies willing to devalue themselves in a race to the bottom. These options are cheaper, yes, but is that all that matters? In my experience, they are only cheaper on the surface.

If you are looking for a Creative Director that can lead your campaign, communicate and manage a concept and deliver a final product, wouldn’t you rather have a player versed in invasion sports over repetition?

Because yes, there are many smart and talented people who can “push the buttons,” but it takes a certain type of leader (I will call them “Accidental Generalists” for the sake of this argument) to understand how to best execute your creative on time, on budget and most importantly, with leadership and the ability to pivot and problem solve if the need arises (and it always arises). We have all learned the hard way that paying twice for a job because we went with the lesser quality option costs us the most important resource of all— your time.

The research says let kids play. Experiment. Experience. Enjoy.

Epstein explores how parents are being duped and guilted into over-specializing our kids from a very young age for fear they will spend their adult lives behind the curve. Whether we insist that they chose certain subjects or push them onto travel sports teams, none of this is required (or even good) for the long term skills necessary for their success. Instead, the better play is to … well, let them play. Experiment. Experience. Enjoy.

“All of this psych research shows, even though there are all these personality quizzes and career gurus who are basically telling you either explicitly or implicitly [what to do], irrespective of who you are, and then march forth confidently, that actually all the research shows that the only way you learn who you are is by doing stuff.”

“Why Parents Should Raise Kids to Be Generalists, Not Specialists” — David Epstein

And “doing stuff” is exactly the stuff at the core of being a generalist. It’s a mindset steeped in curiosity, and when combined with intense hard work, dedication and drive, the Accidental Generalist level is unlocked. Although playing is great for kids, we are all faced with choosing a career at some point in our lives. But why does it have to be just one? Why do we ask kids what they want to be when they grow up as if one singular answer should define who they will be forever. Yes, if you answer “doctor,” you just might be committing the better part of your life to serving this field. It’s possible to keep building on your skills and adding to your tool chest. It’s all about making the commitment to remain curious. 

What are the benefits of learning multiple skills?

In the article  Why You Should Have (at Least) Two Careers” author Kabir Sehgal notes, “In my case, I have four vocations: I’m a corporate strategist at a Fortune 500 company, US Navy Reserve officer, author of several books, and record producer. The two questions that people ask me most frequently are “How much do you sleep?” and “How do you find time to do it all?” (my answers: “plenty” and “I make the time”). Yet these “process” questions don’t get to the heart of my reasons and motivations. Instead, a more revealing query would be, “Why do you have multiple careers?” Quite simply, working many jobs makes me happier and leaves me more fulfilled. It also helps me perform better at each job.”

“Working many jobs makes me happier and leaves me more fulfilled. It also helps me perform better at each job.”

“Why You Should Have (at Least) Two Careers” –Kabir Sehgal

Exactly. We embrace our Accidental Generalist because we are happy and more fulfilled when we learn the things that make us infinitely better at our job, which in our case, is storytelling. Committing to be a lifelong learner allows us to be smarter and faster and more able to come up with solutions for our clients that aren’t perceived as compromises. When you are proficient at different disciplines you can identify where ideas interact and then deduce best if they should or should not interact. We are able to find and execute better solves. 

And it is because we are genuinely curious. We are committed to staying that way and that means we push ourselves constantly to learn more in order to create better.

My partner Justin and I just came off an eight week run in the field. 15 shoot days, 8 states, countless connecting flights. And each job was for a different client with a different strategy and in a different state with a different set of techniques. We learned a TON and we used our Accidental Generalist approach to make each project the best it could be despite fighting weather, layovers, ambitious shoot schedules, lawn mowers (ugh, don’t ask) and location snafus. We drew upon our treasure trove of knowledge to solve issues that could have caused others to go over budget, anger the client, wrap late, get noticeably frustrated causing tension and doubt on set, or give up hope for a solution. Let me tell you, there is always a solve- if you’re willing and armed with the knowledge and experience to find it.

I leave you with this thought from Sehgal that sums it up nicely for me:

“When you follow your curiosities, you will bring passion to your new careers, which will leave you more fulfilled. And by doing more than one job, you may end up doing all of them better.”

“Why You Should Have (at Least) Two Careers” –Kabir Sehgal

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