Why I Specialised in Generalism

Aarish Shah
4 min readOct 5, 2016
Photo Credit — Me!

My name is Aarish, and I’m a generalist.

There, I’ve said it. And in today’s hyper-specialised world, where so-called ‘Unicorn’ employees are the holy grail for recruiters, it’s hard not to feel like being a generalist in a specialist’s world is like admitting to having some funky disease or needing to join a 10-Step programme.

But I have used my generalist approach to help scale manufacturing operations, take start ups from zero revenue to hundreds of thousands of pounds in the space of months and leveraged my broad knowledge base to look beyond what can often become a blinkered vision of a business to the opportunity beyond.

I was one of those kids, enjoyed everything, was good at most things but never tried to excel in anything; mainly because I was too busy enjoying something else. By the time I left school, I could play the flute, the piano, was reasonably good at maths, had spent some time learning the dramatic arts and understood why Brownian motion was important.

The one thing I did better than many was talking, meeting people and creating connections with them, understanding what drove them, and most importantly how I could create a lasting link of collaboration between us — if not today, then leaving the door open to the future.

This manifested itself in a love of languages, and I duly set off to university thinking I’d found my calling.

Turns out, that in the ‘real world’ speaking a foreign language is useful — but not essential outside of a few very specialist (there’s that word again) industries. For someone looking to earn his bones in business it was a nice to have but never going to take me far enough.

Being of Indian origin, I had always promised myself I didn’t want to fall into the trap of the stereotypical doctor, accountant or lawyer. Turns out every now and again, you have to break a promise or two.

After spending a couple of years qualifying as a Chartered Management Accountant I felt I had finally cracked it. I knew what a P&L and Balance Sheet should look like, and how to dissect them in just the right way. I was finally on the road to specialism.

Wrong again.

You see, the thing about generalists like me is that they are often driven by experiential learning — they learn by doing; and if you flip that on its head, every time they do something they treat it as an opportunity to learn, and they may not ever dive deep enough into any one subject to be classed a specialist rather becoming relatively well versed in a variety of subject matters.

“Favoring specialization over intelligence is exactly wrong, especially in high tech. The world is changing so fast across every industry and endeavor that it’s a given the role for which you’re hiring is going to change. Yesterday’s widget will be obsolete tomorrow, and hiring a specialist in such a dynamic environment can backfire. A specialist brings an inherent bias to solving problems that spawns from the very expertise that is his putative advantage, and may be threatened by a new type of solution that requires new expertise. A smart generalist doesn’t have bias, so is free to survey the wide range of solutions and gravitate to the best one.”

Eric Schmidt, How Google Works

I spent the next ten years tying together what I had learned in one of the most challenging business environments in the world — Papua New Guinea (more on that in another post), and what I realised whilst I was out there was that I enjoyed lots of aspects of business, from finding efficiencies in manufacturing process to creating relations with customers, from fundraising to training.

Since then I’ve worked in tech, in education, in executive and non-exec positions, and have thrown off the shackles of defining myself in any other way than as a generalist; and because I am a generalist I am happy to take up challenges across an array of industries and disciplines, looking for the solutions that may not be apparent to someone heavily invested in the area; hopefully — or should I say generally — adding value as I go.

Are you a generalist or a specialist? How do you sell yourself in today’s hyper-specialised workforce?

About me: Currently CFO in an EdTech business, I love writing, photography, learning new stuff and taking businesses from zero to something contact me by email: aarish@emergeone.co.uk

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Aarish Shah

Generalist | Thinker | Life Long Learner | Writer | Photographer