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Are You a Koala or Raccoon? July 4, 2010

Posted by randydeutsch in Ambiguity, career, employment, environment, identity, pragmatism, survival, the economy.
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All architects are by training generalists and then in practice become specialists.

To see that this is true we only need to look at Vitruvius’s bucket list for the training of architects:

to be creative, apt in the acquisition of knowledge, a good writer, a skillful draftsman, versed in geometry and optics, expert at figures, acquainted with history, informed on the principles of natural and moral philosophy, somewhat of a musician, not ignorant of the law and of physics, nor of the motions, laws, and relations to each other, of the heavenly bodies

Despite never becoming somewhat of a musician, many practitioners understandably have remained generalists their entire careers.

Some to great success.

That is, until now.

For while statistics aren’t readily available it is conceivable that the majority of architects who find themselves out of work, or underemployed, today are the generalist sort.

That the better gamble would have – years earlier – been to become experts at something.

But that thinking – while comforting to tell oneself – would be off-the-mark.

By suddenly specializing, generalists do themselves a disservice, are untrue to their calling and sell themselves short.

More than anyone employers need to realize this.

For while there are certainly merits and detriments to each:

Is the current trend to fill holes predominantly with specialists short-sighted?

The Generalist Advantage

Using a biological analogy, a generalist species is able to thrive in a wide variety of environmental conditions and can make use of a variety of different resources while specialist species can only thrive in a narrow range of environmental conditions with a limited diet.

In more utilitarian terms, specialists know where to hit the nail to get rid of the creak in the floor board.

While generalists can recommend eleven types of flooring that don’t creak in the first place.

Generalists see the big picture.

Specialists have great depth of experience in one specific area.

Generalists conceive the big ideas and concepts that energize teams and carry construction projects through their arduous 3-5 year lifespan.

Specialists focus all of their effort and skill development on one specialty.

Generalists keep things interesting – they’re often whom colleagues and clients relate with best.

Specialists have an easier time selling their services once they find their market and can charge more.

Generalists are the glue that holds teams together.

In the body politic, specialists are the workhorse liver and spleen.

Generalists? The heart and sinew.

Specialists know the work inside and out.

Generalists – with broad peripheral knowledge and the ability to provide clients with alternatives if one solution doesn’t fit – are the heart and soul of the operation.

For that really is the crux of the matter:

When specialists die who attends their funeral?

When generalists die they’re standing 10 deep, nary a dry eye in the room.

Specialists may be safer in the short term but generalists are a whole lot more fun.

Wanted: Specialists – Not Deeper Generalists

Is your specialty being a generalist? Are generalists the new specialists?

Architects have so much to learn that being a jack-of-all-trades isn’t really a conceivable route to take.

Even generalists are more specialized than they give themselves credit for.

One look at the jobs postings – what there are of them – and its dishearteningly clear: only specialists are in demand.

Employers now require recruits and candidates that are exact matches for the holes they need to fill.

Down to the detail – looking for people with single attributes.

In the wish list of job requirements “well-rounded” is not among them.

Forget round altogether. We’re living in square peg, square hole times.

Not fire starters but firemen – relievers – to put out fires.

Wanted: Closers, not openers. Fastballs, not knuckleballs.

Generalists in a Specialist’s World

And there’s no room for ambiguity, no growing into the position. You’re either it – or you’re not.

It may be well and good that the architect’s core competency is a hard-earned and all-too-rare comfort with ambiguity.

Make no mistake. We are living in clearly unambiguous times.

This talent – often referred to as agility and flexibility – to keep as many balls in the air for as long as possible isn’t needed right now, thank you.

For there are far fewer balls to maneuver and the few that there are seem to hang in the air longer.

Task masters are in. Multitaskers need not apply.

Going back to that biological analogy, most organisms of course do not fit neatly into either the specialist or generalist camp. Some species are highly specialized, others less so, while some can tolerate many different environments.

In other words, it’s probably healthiest for architects to think of the specialist–generalist issue as a continuum, from highly specialized experts on one end to broadly generalist practitioners on the other.

Are You a Koala or Raccoon?

Forget the Hedgehog or the Fox, where the generalist fox knows many things, but the specialist hedgehog knows one big thing.

Instead, ask yourself: Are you a Koala or Raccoon?

A well-known example of a specialist animal is the koala which subsists almost entirely on eucalyptus leaves. No eucalyptus, no koala.

In our current work environment it is perhaps best to think of oneself like the wily raccoon – which are able to adapt to all sorts of environments, even urban ones.

Ever adaptable, the raccoon is a generalist because it has a natural range that includes most of North and Central America and it is omnivorous, eating berries, insects, eggs and small animals.

But then again, adaptability – like the generalist today – is underrated.

Perhaps it’s best to be a little of both?

But you’d have to be a generalist to see it that way.

Image credit: Lynne Lancaster

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