I like the job title suggested by the quote below: Maker of Contributions Others Can’t.
“Expert-generalists study widely in many different fields, understand deeper principles that connect those fields, and then apply the principles to their core specialty.” But, you may wonder: wouldn’t this force Musk to learn at a surface level only and never gain true mastery? Contrary to the jack-of-all-trades myth, “Learning across multiple fields provides an information advantage (and therefore an innovation advantage) because most people focus on just one field… Each new field we learn that is unfamiliar to others in our field gives us the ability to make combinations that they can’t.” Musk applies this multi-disciplinary approach in order to disrupt the automotive world and achieve otherworldly breakthroughs in rocketry.
Late last year, after years of an increasingly complicated description, I decided on a new response to the question “What do you do?” — which for many people can mean, “How do you earn that living, or wear that suit, or obviously not own a suit but drive that car?” There’s an examination of bone fides going on. The question can be completely innocent, as when the neice’s boyfriend at family Christmas says, “I work at [deleted for protection of neice’s boyfriend], it’s a big consulting company. Do you know what I am talking about?” “Oh, yes,” I responded. And he did as I would have, after a brief pause, and redirected the question, asking me, “What do you do?” Therefore, he can be part of the family, because if he’d launched into an explanation, well, it would have been a poor example of soft skills.
My answer to the “what do you do” quandary is that I am in the business of being me. If pressed for details, I add that I create new combinations across several different domains. The list of domains has been progressively complicated, so I usually stop there and ask what my interlocutor does with their time.
No comparison to Elon Musk intended, we are both citizens of the United States and the planet, equals before the law and not much else. However, I believe this expert-generalist skillset represents more than the path to business titancy, it’s the keystone of complete works of creativity, business and technical innovation at every scale. I know it has been the basis of my career, and remember with gratitude the first times people recognized, nurtured and leveraged my learning skills. It taught me more about more processes, systems and stories. Having started a writer I became a “portfolio careerist” in the mid-90s.
Now I am in the business of being me.
Expert-Generalism is the basis of future careers and lives, not to mention many current and fabled startups not-quite-Muskian, in deference to the fact that the era of the multi-founder is just starting. The smartest CEOs I’ve known are essentially generalists. Some are truly generalists while others began as deep domain experts and added business, strategic, economic and political skills. The smartest ones are all expert-generalists.
Expert-Generalists are also the backbone of great local service experiences, because they can tie together a thriving on-demand small business community with incredible personal presence, soft skills, and expertise. The edges of the network are about to come to life with digitally managed personal and professional services as small business and solo workers become integrated into the logistics and planning platforms that have been the sole domain of the enterprise for decades. New combinations of value will be breaking out everywhere, out of necessity as much as a taste for progress.
A few people with an idea can change an industry and be testing the concept on the cloud in a few days, targeting their local market or the world. It is not necessary to start at scale. Uber certainly didn’t. Local is where an idea can be proved, then grown. Local is also where the action will be as a result of the collapse of credibility of authority in media, marketing, government, Wall Street and much else, likely too much else.
We’ll find the anchor point in local experience, built of people augmented by software. The economics of local on-demand have not been worked out. Experiments are breaking out all over, though some have run afoul of the law because they are frankly radical. Even the collapse of American democracy is possible these days, but I pledge to work with my neighbors to see that we are all happy, enjoy a fair wage that ensures they and their children are well-fed and educated.
All of us will acknowledge that.
The New York Times‘ Thomas L. Friedman recently described a new class of jobs he dubbed “STEMpathy” work. These are people augmented by software, the network and mobile devices, as well as extensively networked homes and automobiles. This includes everyone who doesn’t feel secure in their jobs today. We feel this way because we know the changes coming include AI and robots. Friedman correctly points out that “heart” is at the core of all work experience. There will be robots. We do need to change our skills, though not to be beggared at the gates of globalism.
Eventually, the question of how ordinary people will earn livings to buy the products made by businesses will become the foremost question in society. I suspect that will involve an intense local focus. Cities and states are already responding to the 2016 election by focusing on their quality of life, local values, and, strangely, the people. Marketers are seeking the holy grail of one-to-one engagement with customers. As everything becomes more virtual, it is increasingly important to be personal. There’s a lot of money in human contact and connections.
We can have no idea when that will happen, especially given the growing authoritarian movement. When the break comes, there will be a Great Re-deal, which does not have to mean a mass redistribution of wealth. Instead, it could come in a general adjustment of the compensation for work, which will lead to fair returns for all the work that contributes to the creation of great wealth and small prosperity: A thriving economy.
At that time, there will be many more specialists than today, working in science, technology, mathematics, medicine, and management. There will be more expert-generalists managing them. There will be many more expert-generalist laborers, sellers, makers, doctors, dentists, plumbers, as well as delivery, installation, maintenance and support people, working and living in the same community as those specialists.
We’ll all be grateful that expert-generalism isn’t something only Elon Musk can do. I’m confident he’d agree.