Raising Up Generalists

In the summer of 1994 I shared a dorm room at Moody Bible Institute with a former Olympic Sprinter from Liberia. I believe his name was Samuel. I was barely 18 years old, living on my own for the first time, and he was in his 30s, a married man trying to save money to bring his wife over to the United States while he finished his schooling.

He and I weren’t close. Sharing a room was about all we had in common. But I thought he was cool… he’d run in races around the world against Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis.

Late in the summer the school sponsored a 5k race to raise money for a cause. And Moody’s athletic director, with a flair for promotion, invited Samuel to be a part of the race so that he could put on the flyer that an Olympic runner would be involved.

On the day of the race I had a very interesting conversation with Samuel. He was nervous about the race. He wanted to do it because he felt it was an honor to be invited and he knew the school was counting on him. But he’d never run 5 kilometers. He was a sprinter. And he was convinced that he couldn’t run that far.

He was right. When the race started he dropped about about a kilometer into the course. He joked, “I went as far as a sprinter should ever go.

Raising Up Generalists

We celebrate specialist. These are people who have taken something that lots of people could maybe fart around with and maybe be alright at… but they’ve focused all of their attention at getting really good at one thing.

The truth is that specialists are great to work with. You know what they do, that it’ll be great, and you can count on them.

But being a specialist is also problematic. There’s a difference between a persons specialty and their passion, those don’t automatically line up.

The longer you are seen as a specialist in a specific field the less people assume you know anything or are interested in things outside of your field. I run into this all the time. And it drives me insane.

Raising Up Generalists

The reality is that while the specialist gets all the attention, the generalist gets things done. Organizations need both to thrive.

I would recommend that we each examine ways that we can celebrate the non-specialized parts of our specialists and celebrate the generalists in your organization who get stuff done every single day.

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in Ahwahnee, California.

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