To be round or to be sharp

As a youngster who has been (How do I put it?) let’s say on the healthier side as far back as I can remember and one who has been fighting a losing battle against calories ever since I struck puberty, I understand the struggle of my fellow fighters and I must, at the outset provide this clarification. If you were misled by the title and are looking for a motivational piece on staying fit, read no further because this will suck out any remnant motivation from your faltering fitness regime. You have been warned……

Homo Sapiens or humans are the species with the highest intellect, which has helped it gain supremacy over all beings many of which are physically a lot superior to humans. Evolution is an unfair mother who is never kind to a fault and promotes her stronger progeny. Naturally, human intellect has increased over centuries and society has evolved in a way to reward mental fitness better than physical fitness. Even with increased health awareness among the educated urban Indian, the dominance of the brain over brawn has only increased. These opening remarks are a compilation of the lame excuses I usually put forward when someone reminds me of my increasing weight. Nevertheless, it helps me establish the premise that for humans, matters of the brain are what matter most.  But this is not an article on why you should worry less about the numbers on a weighing scale and more about the numbers on the last logical reasoning/IQ test you attempted.  This is about a question that I have answered to my satisfaction, and must have come up in the minds of many more youngsters wanting to make a career for themselves. Should one aspire for well-rounded knowledge or specialized knowledge? Should one be a generalist or a specialist? Not just for those in their nascent careers, this is food for thought for many and most have our own answers to it.


Higher demand for specialized knowledge

The 90’s and 00’s were the time when parents in the frenzy to provide their kids the best possible careers pushed their children off to attain knowledge in areas they thought rewarded best with little thought on what their interests are or what they may excel at. A case in point is the large number of engineering graduates employed in jobs which no stretch of imagination can relate to engineering. This supremacy of engineering courses is slowly waning and educational institutes are offering degrees in varied fields. Newer courses emerge today with increased specializations. This increase in specialized courses can be seen as a response to a higher demand for specialists in industry today.


Do specialists have a better career?

Martin Luther King Jr., whose dreams inspired a generation to fight non-violently for civil rights, may have dreamed up a little too much when he said, “Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” Education to be a better man is romantic. But the real reason students burn the midnight lamp to earn their degrees is to add more zeros to their bank balance. I wouldn’t be the only one to have wondered whether to gain further expertise in my area of study or to go for a degree in a different field and have wider and more rounded knowledge.

A generalist with rounded knowledge can do well in a variety of situations and may be better adept with uncertainty. His better ‘world knowledge’ and wider exposure can ensure that he can shoulder the responsibilities of life. As one climbs higher up the career ladder, one needs to be a good leader and a leader needs a lot of generalized skills like good communication, better people management etc. It is no wonder that more entrepreneurs are generalists than specialists, with well rounded skills to steer the business through rain and shine. Specialists with a narrow scope tend to look at everything through the blinds forced on by their specialization. This may be why as specializing becomes a common trend, what was earlier common sense is no longer so common. But as Nanette Ripmeester, founder of Expertise in Labour Mobility says, “Specific skills are valued more because they are more difficult to teach”. A lot of generalized skills can be picked up on the job. The Indian Administrative Service (IAS) is a coveted career that owing to its selection process is more accessible to one with a wide generalized knowledge. But, a study of IAS recruits found that, those with specialized knowledge moved up the ranks faster. A diverse work history in various sectors also hurts one’s chances of promotion.


In the rat race of career building, there is immense pressure to succeed. In an increasingly capitalistic world, success is increasingly defined by the money you take home end of the month. But to me, success would be to do what you love and be paid for it. If you become an expert in the area you love, be it an area of generalized knowledge or specialized knowledge, success will follow. As Aamir Khan in ‘3 Idiots’ says, “Kabil bano, kabil. Kamyaabi toh saali jhak maarke peeche bhagegi”.

To answer the question posed initially, I would rather specialize and build a niche for myself and generalize later on as I establish myself in a career. That said, learning is a never ending process and the day you stop learning is the day you become obsolete.

(This article first appeared on Public Affairs Centre‘s blog. See here.)

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