In a previous article, I call people like Elon Musk “expert-generalists” (a term coined by Orit Gadiesh, chairman of Bain & Company). Expert-generalists study widely in many different fields, understand deeper principles that connect those fields, and then apply the principles to their core specialty.
If you’re someone who loves learning in different areas, you’re probably familiar with this well-intentioned advice:
“Grow up. Focus on just one field.”
“Jack of all trades. Master of none.”
The implicit assumption is that if you study in multiple areas, you’ll only learn at a surface level, never gain mastery.
The success of expert-generalists throughout time shows that this is wrong. Learning across multiple fields provides an information advantage (and therefore an innovation advantage) because most people focus on just one field.
For example, if you’re in the tech industry and everyone else is just reading tech publications, but you also know a lot about biology, you have the ability to come up with ideas that almost no one else could. Vice-versa. If you’re in biology, but you you also understand artificial intelligence, you have an information advantage over everyone else who stays siloed.
Despite this basic insight, few people actually learn beyond their industry.
Each new field we learn that is unfamiliar to others in our field gives us the ability to make combinations that they can’t. This is the expert-generalist advantage.
- Is it better to learn deeply from one subject (depth), or learn from many subjects but at a more superficial level (breadth)?
- What is the way that you learn best?