Redefining Generalists - Research is LIVE!
Research reframes generalists as experts in learning, problem solving and big picture thinking
In a world that prioritises specialists, generalists are often misunderstood and underestimated. The following preliminary findings contradict the common assumption that a generalist is a “jack of all trades, master of none.” Instead, generalists may be the next “big thing”, as they excel in future skills such as adaptability, interpersonal skills and digital fluency.
The concepts of generalists and specialists have been around since the early 20th century and today are used to describe individuals who have a broad range of knowledge and skills (generalists) and those who have deep expertise in a specific area (specialists). However, very little quantitative research has been conducted on the educational and career paths of these groups as well as their strengths and personality traits.
In this pilot study we surveyed over 100 self-identified generalists from the Generalist World community1 to better understand their careers, education, strengths and personality traits. A deeper understanding of these dimensions could help generalists discover more successful and fulfilling career paths and could help organisations, communities and society at large leverage the capabilities of generalists to the fullest.
Increasing diversity of thought has been shown to improve creativity, innovation and problem solving in teams.2,3 As our society faces seemingly unprecedented challenges such as climate change and the acceleration of technology, further knowledge on how to better unlock human potential and our collective intellectual power could have tremendous impact.
Our results highlight that generalists are expert learners, versatile problem solvers and big-picture thinkers who can effectively apply these strengths across varied fields and roles. They are skilled at spotting relevant patterns in complexity and are often empathetic and future-focused. We propose that a more meaningful definition of generalists would be one that focuses on these key strengths, rather than their wandering path.
We share the following preliminary results to inspire further discussion and investigation into this subject.
We’d love to connect with universities and sponsors interested in helping fund the continuation of this research. Email [email protected] to chat further.
1. Strengths: Generalists identify learning, spotting patterns and empathy as key strengths
Generalists were asked to select their top three strengths from a custom list based on discussions in the Generalist World community (Figure 1). To understand strengths across a standardised framework, we also presented respondents with 34 strengths from the CliftonStrengths framework4 (Figure 2). Generalists selected their top five based on what they thought suited them best using their definitions.
For context, we compared our CliftonStrengths results with the frequency of these strengths seen across the overall population, as published by Gallup.5 Readers must note that results based on taking the assessment vs self-selection may be different, so these comparisons should be further validated.
Figure 1: Frequency of generalists’ top 3 strengths
Figure 2: Frequency of generalists’ top 5 CliftonStrengths
Learning surfaced as a top strength, perhaps unsurprisingly, coming in as the #1 CliftonStrength for generalists (Figure 2) and #5 from our custom list (Figure 1). For context, “Learner” is the #2 CliftonStrength for the overall population but with a frequency of 28%, compared to 41% in our generalist group. Generalists have traditionally been defined as individuals who have a broad knowledge and skill set, which, to be successful at least, requires an ability to learn across various disciplines and in different environments. It would be interesting to discover if a particular aptitude for learning is what motivates and/or enables generalists to explore, or if this strength is developed through the process of exploration itself.
Problem solving also surfaced as a top strength, coming in as #1 in our custom list (51% of generalists listed it in their top 3 strengths, Figure 1). “Ideation,” a key component of problem solving, was in the generalists’ top 5 CliftonStrengths (Figure 2) but comes in at #16 for the overall population. Problem solving is involved in almost every activity, especially in the workplace. Practiced in a variety of contexts, disciplines and roles, generalists would likely develop a flexible or “general” approach to finding solutions to complex and difficult issues, enabling them to problem solve effectively in novel situations or problem areas.
Strategic and big picture thinking surfaced as top themes for generalists with “Big Picture Thinking” coming in at #2 in our custom list (Figure 1) and “Strategic” coming in as the #2 CliftonStrength (Figure 2). For context “Strategic” is also in the top 5 for the overall population but is at a frequency of 21% (vs 39% for generalists surveyed). Gallop defines “Strategic” as “[allowing] you to see patterns where others simply see complexity” and claims strategic thinking “is not a skill that can be taught.”6 Big picture thinking refers to thinking holistically across problem space at the expense of focusing on details. Together these results suggest generalists are likely to excel at spotting emergent patterns in noisy environments. Perhaps it is the generalist’s drive to find patterns in bigger and more complex problem spaces that drives them to explore a wide territory of industries and roles, enabling them to make wider and less obvious connections.
Empathy and emotional intelligence emerged as a key theme. 37% of generalists surveyed chose “Emotional Intelligence” as a top three strength from our custom list (Figure 1) and “Empathy” came in as the #4 CliftonStrength for generalists with 32% having it in their top 5 (Figure 2), compared to 19% for the overall population. “Communication” was the generalist group’s #6 theme, but is not in the top 10 for the overall population. Empathy and emotional intelligence are not commonly included in the definition of a generalist. If further work validates these results, the definition and understanding of generalists should expand to include this dimension.
It is possible that the ability of generalists to make connections across fields and roles (note “Connectedness” also came up as a top 10 CliftonStrength that is not seen in the top 10 for the overall adult population) also gives generalists the ability to connect to and relate to other people that are different to them. Alternatively, a focus on people, their problems and the "big picture" world that people live in could motivate generalists to traverse different disciplines, roles and problem areas as necessary to solve what they see as the most pressing problems affecting communities or individuals of interest.
2. Personality: Three-quarters of generalists say they are future-focused and intuitive
To uncover key personality traits of generalists, we used the Myers Briggs framework and asked generalists to select which description they preferred from each of the four Myers Briggs dimensions (Figure 3).7 Respondents were provided links to the Myers Briggs website where they could learn more about each dimension to make more informed choices. For context, data from generalists were compared to published data from The Myers & Briggs Foundation on the frequency of these dimensions in the overall adult population.8 Readers must note that results based on taking assessments vs self-selection may be different, so these comparisons should be further validated.
Figure 3: Generalists’ Myers Briggs preferences
For the dimensions of “Extroversion”/”Introversion”, “Thinking”/”Feeling” and “Judging”/”Perceiving”, generalists varied from the overall population by only differences of 6.5% - 18.7%. For “Intuition”/”Sensing”, however, 77% of generalists surveyed said they associated more with “Intuition”, which is 2.9 times higher than the frequency reported for “Intuition” in the overall population (27%).
The Myers & Briggs Foundation defines those with strong “Intuition” as “paying the most attention to impressions or the meaning and patterns of the information [they] get,”9 which echoes the results on strategic and big picture thinking under strengths regarding pattern spotting. Myers & Briggs continues the definition as “interested in new things and what might be possible" and “[thinking] more about the future than the past.” Other results in this study indicate generalists may excel at key future skills, which McKinsey defines as including being adaptable, interpersonal and having digital fluency.10 This focus on the future as part of their personality suggests that generalists may also be more motivated to do future-building work.
3. Industries: Generalists work in Software & IT at over four times the rate of any other industry
Generalists were asked what industry they have worked in most based on the 24 industries defined by the business and career-focused social media platform LinkedIn. For context, we compared this to published statistics from LinkedIn on the industry categories of their users.
37.5% of generalists selected “Software & IT” as their top industry, which is more than the next five industries combined and over 4x the rate of any other industry (Figure 4). For context, “Software & IT” is also the top industry for all LinkedIn users, but this category only represents 17.1% of the total overall population.11
Figure 4: Top industries generalists worked in most (top 10 out of 24)
Generalists may especially thrive in the innovative and volatile technology ecosystem. Technology evolves quickly, demands flexibility and benefits from interdisciplinary collaboration, and so is an environment where generalists have ample opportunities to use the key strengths described above. Software and IT, existing in the infinitely flexible digital world, is also less constrained than other technology industries (e.g. manufacturing, hardware, biotech, etc) and so moves at an even higher pace of innovation and change. This contrasts with other industries that have more stable career paths and problems to solve, such as “Agriculture” and “Real Estate”, which have no representation from generalists surveyed.
It is possible that the high percentage we see for “Software and IT” is due to the high proportion of 25-44 year olds in our subject pool (see Demographics), but comparable data at this level of resolution is scarce.
4. Organization size: Generalists gravitate to small organisations
Generalists were asked what size organisation they have worked in most in their careers. Overall, generalists showed a normal distribution around a peak of size 11-50 people, with an additional bump at 10K+. Over 50% of generalist respondents selected organisational sizes of 50 people or less (Figure 5).
Smaller organisations tend to have less specialised roles and require employees to “wear many hats” to cover all necessary tasks to be done. More generalists have worked in organisations of 11-50 people than other size brackets. This size could be a sweet spot for generalists and their strengths: small enough to require role and problem fluidity, but with a large enough team to learn from, synthesise ideas from and collaborate with.
Though generalists may gravitate to smaller organisations, the under-representation of generalists in larger organisations is an opportunity for these organisations to rethink how they can better leverage generalists’ strengths and provide more fulfilling career paths for them.
5. Roles: Generalists gravitate to operations and founder roles
When asked to select their primary role from a predefined list (Figure 6), with the option to write in another, over 30% of respondents selected “Operations” as their primary role, followed by “Founder” (14.5%) and a “Truly generalist role” (11.32%). Write ins included research, program management, learning design, support, customer success and creative roles.
Figure 6: Roles that describe generalists best (custom list)
The large number of generalists seen in operations roles could be because this role category is varied by nature and therefore attractive to generalists, or because this category encompasses so many sub-roles (program management, project management, accounting, human resources, etc) that it has risen to the top. The high prevalence of the “Founder” role is not surprising as founders need to keep an eye on the big picture, lead and collaborate across all functions in the organisation and integrate knowledge and know-how across several domains.
Further investigation breaking down the roles taken on by generalists within operations and developing a better understanding of “truly generalist roles”, as well as surveying on career satisfaction across all roles, would shed more light on what kinds of roles generalists may find the most success and fulfilment and how we may be able to evolve role definitions and organisational design to best leverage the key strengths of generalists within small or large teams.
6. Education: 39% of generalists surveyed have postgraduate level degrees
When asked about the highest level of education received, 50.9% of generalist respondents selected “undergraduate degree (college or university)” and 38.9% said “postgraduate degree (masters or doctorate).” Our survey pool had high representation from countries with relatively high rates of higher education (the US, UK and Canada; see Demographics) and may be biased in other ways that impact education level, so these quantitative results should be further explored in a broader group. However, it may still come as a surprise that we see such high rates of postgraduate degrees in particular as postgraduate study is characterised by diving deep into a specialised field or area of investigation.
Reasons for this may include a strong drive to learn, the need to buy more time to discover a less obvious career path or to develop skills to compete in a mostly specialised workplace. Regardless of reason, it is clear that generalists can and do choose to “go deep” when they need or want to, which calls into question the perception that generalists move around or “wander” due to an inability to commit to a topic for any extended period of time and supports a definition of generalists that emphasises their strengths over their meandering path.
👉️ Future Directions
Though we were able to compare our results on generalists to publicly available data on the overall adult population, our data may include biases from how participants were recruited (via a paid community for generalists) or how the data was collected in the survey compared to for the overall adult population (e.g. self-selection vs taking the assessments for CliftonStrengths and Myers Briggs). To validate these results, further studies should compare generalists, specialists and those in between under the same context and covering the same demographics.
Categorisation of subjects into specialists or generalists for this kind of study could be done via self-identification, as in this study, and/or via the development and use of an assessment that queries a subject's strengths, personality and career choices and predicts where they fall on the generalist to specialist spectrum, leveraging insights from this research and more. The development of this kind of assessment could help to answer what percentage of adults fall into each of these categories, which according to our knowledge is unknown but critical information to best structure our education systems and workplaces at large. It could also be used functionally by individuals, as well as their workplaces and education systems, to best match an individual to a program or role that is most suited to them, helping unlock the intellectual potential of generalists and accelerate organisations.
These results begin to paint a clearer picture of generalists. Unsurprisingly, they highlight generalists as expert learners, problem solvers and big picture thinkers. More surprising were results indicating generalists are highly empathetic and future-focused and show high rates of specialised higher education and work in software and IT. Together they suggest that generalists are not just individuals with varied experiences and skills, but ones with a unique set of strengths and approach to the world. Further research on generalists would help to better understand and unlock their potential.
To support this research, please share these initial findings with your network and follow Generalist World to stay up to date on any future studies.
Surveys were created and sent via Google Forms to members of the Generalist World community. Responses were collected voluntarily and anonymously from 116 members and respondents were able to skip questions. Only those respondents who self-identified as a Generalist in the survey were included in the analysis shown here (107 total). These were subjects who answered 5 or higher on a 7 point Likert scale for the question “Where do you think you sit on the Specialist (1) to Generalist (7) spectrum?”.
Research was done independently by the authors and not funded by Generalist World.
Gender breakdown was similar to that of the overall adult population with 52.6% of survey respondents identifying as female, 45.7% as male and 1.7% as non-binary, though females did index higher than in the average adult population. Respondents came from 21 different countries, with the biggest representation from the United States (53.3%), the United Kingdom (20%) and Canada (3.8%), together covering 77.1% of respondents. Survey respondents were all over 18 years old and only one respondent was 65 or older. 85% of respondents were between 25 and 44 years old, which is over twice the representation we see for this age group in the overall population.
Thank you to the Generalist World community members that took part in this survey as participants and contributed to discussions on these topics and findings. A special shout out to Milly Tamati, Masha Tiunova, Rahul Khanna and Tom Krumins for their contributions to the survey design, analysis and paper.
2. “Teams Solve Problems Faster When They’re More Cognitively Diverse,” Harvard Business Review, 2017
3. “Diversity Matters,” McKinsey & Company, 2015
4. “The 34 CliftonStrengths Themes Explain Your Talent DNA,” Gallup, Inc.
5. “Overall Clifton Strengths Database Report,” Gallup, Inc., 2022
6. “An Introduction to Strategic® CliftonStrengths Theme,” Gallup, Inc.
7. “MBTI® Basics,” The Myers & Briggs Foundation,
8. “How frequent is my type?” The Myers & Briggs Foundation
9. “Sensing or Intuition,” The Myers & Briggs Foundation
10. “The Skills Revolution and the Future of Learning and Earning,” World Government Summit in Collaboration with McKinsey & Company, 2023
11. “Digital 2021 October Global Statshot Report,” We are Social and Hootsuite, 2021