Can Generalists Thrive in the Conceptual Age?

One of the questions I get most often is: “what do you do?” The answer to that question is not an easy one, as my work with companies ranges from start-ups to those almost middle market size, and the services I offer from advisory board member to turnaround artist. Yet, when my role is marketing consultant, I advise others to be able to answer the very same question crisply, concisely, and in a compelling way. What is poignant is that, as we gain more skills over the years, it becomes harder and harder to specialize. That is not to say, however, that I have not met people in business who are extremely specialized and who succeed in their field. For the moment, though, I want to write for others who have adapted to competitive market demands to embrace new skill sets, become masterful enough that others hire them to provide those new skills, and now are the proverbial “generalists.”

Don’t confuse “generalist” with “General,” however, as many generalists struggle to stay with one organization long enough to rise to the rank of top officer. Furthermore, a generalist has challenges in the unique realm of trying to keep up with evolution in many more topical areas, all of which are changing at a faster rate than at perhaps any time in history. The good news is that, as Daniel Pink points out in A Whole New Mind, we are now living in the Conceptual Age, having evolved from the Information Age to a day and time when creativity will be valued highly. Maybe that is not such good news for left brain folks who are not able to adapt, but for those (for whom the learning of new information was merely a means to an end, the end being to connect emotionally with others, build relationships, and find success while doing so) who embrace right-brained living, it is a brand new day!

Here are the new skills that are needed in the Conceptual Age:

  1. Design – the ability to create something that has significance as well as usefulness.
  2. Story – the ability to put facts into context and deliver them with emotional impact.
  3. Symphony – the ability to see the big picture, connect the dots, combine disparate things into something new.
  4. Play – sense of humor and laughter plus other components to balance the psyche.
  5. Empathy – standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes.
  6. Meaning – working for something in which one believes with others who have similar values.

As you can see from the list, the emphasis and value will be placed on original thought rather than automatable routines. Computer power has now rendered many repeatable acts less valuable (not unnecessary, mind you, just worth less than previously because either low wage earners or machines can perform them admirably). What will come to be increasingly important is the ability to think up a new concept, develop it sufficiently, and share it so that it resonates with the heart of another. 

What’s the role of the generalist in this new economy? That depends–can you adapt, or are you trying to pour new wine into an old wineskin? Those of us who can adapt will be able to answer questions like “what do you do?” with less of an elevator pitch and more of a carefully crafted story that captures the mind, will, and emotions of the intended audience, hopefully in a multi-sensory way!

Cheers to you as you embark on the journey to greater relevance, enhanced value to others, and — I sincerely hope — a much greater sense of doing something truly meaningful (other than just adding to your repository of information.)


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