Don’t Be a Generalist

Yesterday I began my new role as a Career Coach at Point Loma Nazarene University. After a three hour orientation, I hit the ground running. My first assignment: Participate in a StrengthsFinder Workshop with the entire Athletics Department. 

As I jumped into line for sandwiches on their lunch break, I had to immediately insert myself into existing conversations. “Hi, I’m new here. What's your name and what's your role?” Then someone would say, “I’m the Athletic Director” or “I coach women’s volleyball.” And the day would continue in this fashion. 

The workshop would resume shortly after. I thought to myself, “Nice, I can just sit back and listen.” Then, like anyone on their first job, I slowly started to hear the all-too-familiar voices in my head echo, “Danny, what do you have to contribute? Don’t say anything… Just listen… You haven’t won their trust or earned the right to speak yet.”

But as I sat restlessly in my chair, I had to trust my gut and pick my moment. Pushing aside the toxic tapes looping through my head, I asked myself, “Danny, what if you don’t say anything today? This team might miss out on some insight I might have.” So I waited to see if I would have an inspiration to share. 

As we discussed the 4 Domains of Leadership, I began to hear murmurings from the participants in the fact that they personally didn’t have themes in the all four quadrants: Relationship Building, Strategic Thinking, Executing and Influencing. Their body language and verbal comments revealed a dissatisfaction in their overall StrengthsFinder Profile. 

As I listened and asked the question, “Why does this disappoint you?” I would hear things like, “Well I was always told to be well-rounded” or “If I could be more of this strength, I would be more useful to my team?” 

And right there, the deep-rooted problem was revealed! For most of our lives, we have been told to be well-rounded. To be good enough at everything and fix/focus on improving our weaknesses. Listen to what Tom Rath has to say about this: 

“When we're able to put most of our energy into developing our natural talents, extraordinary room for growth exists. So, a revision to the "You-can-be-anything-you-want-to-be" maxim might be more accurate: You cannot be anything you want to be—but you can be a lot more of who you already are.” 

I applied this thought to the coaches and trainers context. I spoke up and said, “One of the things I think we as human being struggle with is striving to be a generalist in life. That’s what we’ve been told our whole lives to be, right?” 

Then I turned to the baseball coach, “Coach, when you assemble your squad for the upcoming season, you’re not looking for a generalist are you? Someone who can kind of hit the ball, run decently fast, have a mediocre pitch and play outfield. Instead, you’re looking for the best closer, most intuitive 1st baseman, an excellent short stop or catcher. The goal is not to create a team of generalists, but a team of specialists with their particular roles and expertise.” 

Then I turned to the volleyball coach, “Coach, when you put your squad together, you can’t have a team that all look and respond the same way can you? What if you had a team of girls who were all taller than 6’7”, couldn't dig a ball if their life depended on it, and couldn’t set your hitters for spikes? Your team would be a mess. Or what if you your team was comprised of short but quick players who just simply couldn’t block at the net? That would make for a long and miserable season. What you need is a team of specialists with their own unique talents and abilities!” 

Then it clicked. In the world of athletics, coaches know and want the very best of the best. Coaches don’t settle for well-rounded (unless they're recruiting Lebron James). Coaches and managers want a team of experts. 

So why don’t we have this kind of perspective in life? What if we began to identify our talents, invest in our strengths, and be unashamed of who we were made to be. Rather than trying to be well-rounded, what if we truly honed in our greatest talents and relied on others to do the rest. 

If we gave ourselves the freedom to live this way, I bet we’d feel more motivated and alive as a result of being who we were made to be without trying to be who we’re not. Be who you are, give yourself the freedom to be a specialist and let go of the false promises that a generalist mentality brings. You won’t regret it.