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5 Reasons Why Generalists Can Become Successful Entrepreneurs

Written by: Dr. Shahram Maralani, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


Generalists succeed as stronger entrepreneurs. Generalists are jacks-of-all-trades. They learn both hard and soft skills and have high confidence and persuasiveness. They follow a generalist career path, change roles, and stay open to new opportunities. Generalists lead groups of specialists like a conductor leading the orchestra. And that is what entrepreneurship is all about.

Business men an women happily having conversation inside the office.

Who is a "Generalist"

A generalist is a person with a wide array of knowledge on a variety of subjects, useful or not (wikipedia). This is an interesting definition to start from. Despite the association of generalists by the public to being jack-of-all-trades, and hence considering them as "not expert in anything," the very fact that they have this wide range of knowledge in so many different domains and about so many topics, makes them an expert in "the big picture." Generalists are like oceans of one-centimeter depth for the majority of their territory, while being much deeper in few key domains. This vast territory of knowledge enables them to see the relations and similarities between various domains and phenomena, while not being bugged down into the nitty gritty of how each of those works.

Society can not function by depending only on either generalists or specialists. A pilot or a brain surgeon are two examples of how specialists can save people's lives in high-risk situations. A successful president or a prime minister in a democratic society is on the other hand an example of how generalists can retain order and bring prosperity to a whole nation or even the wider world. A well-functioning society, industry or company needs to have both generalists as well as specialist to thrive.

Generalist Career Path

People have different preferences. Some get professional satisfaction by digging into details. They can sit for hours, days and months digging into a single problem, trying to find an explanation and a solution for it. They enjoy to learn about their domains and spend their entire career to become more skilled in what they are already good at by practicing what they do and studying the new frontiers in their domain. These are the specialist. Others on the other hand, have an interest to see the relation between different things and their interactions. They focus on understanding how a totality of an entity works. Their focus is on simplification and modeling of the problems, and application of proven methods as solutions or just mitigation. These are the generalists.

No-one is a pure generalist or specialist. Every professional has a combination of generalist as well as specialist traits. But given the explanations above, you can categorize people and their professions into these two categories. There is a fundamental difference between generalists and specialists, their preferences and motivations, and their contributions to the society.

The Benefits of Being a Generalist

You may wonder why generalists succeed in a specialized world. According to Paul Genberg, a Forbes councils member, there are a lot of benefits to being a generalist. Broad experience of generalists enables them to draw from their diverse collection of knowledge to figure out connections and correlations that specialists might miss. Having a higher emotional intelligence (EQ), generalists tend to interact with many different kinds of people in their day-to-day life. This gives them not only a bigger picture by tapping into the wisdom of the crowd, but the ability to act as a leader. In fact, modern leadership is less about aiming, commanding and controlling, but understanding, connecting and facilitating, and that is what generalists are much better at. There are counter arguments and examples of successful companies with their leaders being specialists. But these companies are in the minority. Majority of the companies benefit from generalists in their business leadership and entrepreneurial roles.

Generalists Succeed as Entrepreneurs

According to Edward Lazear from Stanford, generalists succeed as successful entrepreneurs. Edward has been studying data from a survey of about 5,000 Stanford MBA graduates. They have been asked questions later in their careers. What was apparent is that Entrepreneurs are jacks-of-all-trades. They took various courses and more general curriculum. Their career involved a wider range of experiences and skills. From the survey it was clear that the chance of starting a new business rose, as an individual had multiple different types of positions during their career.

Successful entrepreneurs need to have a broad and deep experience. They need to understand how all the pieces fit together and identify opportunities for improvement and development. They need to be great communicators and explain their vision to the people around them. They must be great at networking and building relations and passionate about what they do to bring these networks and relations along and motivate them towards a common goal. These are all ingredients of a successful business person. That is why the successful entrepreneurs are great generalist. They see a greater totality and are able to create what they have in their vision tapping into the resources they employ.

How to Become a Generalist Entrepreneur

There are five key reasons why generalists become successful entrepreneurs. Understanding those and following steps to identify, explore and develop in those areas can be of great help for those who identify themselves as generalists and have the desire to become entrepreneurs.

Keep learning new skills

Jumping from one branch to the other is a killer of focus. Staying for too long on the same branch on the other hand, limits the access to new scenes and resources. Successful entrepreneurs are good in understanding where and for how long to stay, and when and where to move onto. As a generalist, you want to learn about your own domain relatively well, but study the adjacent and then further away areas to get new insights and ideas. Moving too frequently makes your ocean of knowledge very shallow. Moving too slow, makes you a deep lake, and hence a great specialist, but not a potential generalist entrepreneur.

Stay open to new opportunities

Focus can bring results, but it may not increase the overall potential in a particular domain. It is more difficult for new entrants to capture their own shares in a market which is stagnating or shrinking. Staying open to opportunities both in your own domain, but also the adjacent or completely new areas may be the way to go. Do not fall in love with your current ideas and scope, as entrepreneurship is both about persistence in a chosen domain till you succeed, but also about identifying the right time and approach to leave a space and move on.

Continuously compete with yourself

Growth mindset is the key to success, not only for entrepreneurs but for everyone. According to Carol Dweck, people with growth mindset see failure as an opportunity to grow. They can learn to do anything they want and use their challenges as an enabler to grow. Their abilities are defined by their efforts and attitude, and they use constructive feedback as a mean to improve. They are inspired by success of others and they like to try new things. This type of mindset makes these people to enjoy competing not only with others, but also with themselves. Competing with themselves enables them to aim at their better self every single day. As a result, they explore new areas, learn about them, fail, and take action until they succeed. Continual improvement is the nature of business growth and development and a hobby for generalist entrepreneurs.

Learn to Pivot, Pivot to Learn

Pivoting in business means to change some aspect of the core product or service. Entrepreneurs might pivot to better meet the demands of their customers, or to shift their focus to a new category of audience. This all is to boost results or improve other metrics in the business. Pivoting can also help them learn by doing as nothing is greater than real customer feedback on a modified product or a modified business. You want to learn as a generalist aiming to become an entrepreneur on how to pivot from one idea to another one, and more importantly how to pivot within the same territory to adjust and improve your targeted value proposition and offering. You also need to use this pivoting as a way to learn by getting feedback from others. This helps you simulate a real businesses value proposition to meet customer demand, well before you establish your business, and find your path.

Become a Specialist!

Being a generalist does not mean being shallow. Knowledgeable generalists are the "Google of their domain." They know stuff and can retrieve those using the triggers around them such as a topic, a discussion, a piece of news, or a movement in the market. That is why, you should become a specialist in being a generalist. Tapping into such a vast knowledge can become challenging over time. It is important to learn and build methodologies to structure your knowledge in an accessible way to yourself, when that becomes necessary.

Tip! Build your own personal knowledge portal where you store all your generalist knowledge. If you want to learn how, send me a message on LinkedIn.


Human history includes thousands of years of specialism. Our ancestors distributed the work between them with some making hunting tools, while others went hunting. The fabric of our modern societies today, does almost use the very same logic. Specialists create technologies, by turning science into consumable products and services. Entrepreneurs use those technologies together with proven or innovative methods to create businesses which create those products and services in high volumes making them accessible to a large number of consumers. Entrepreneurs needs to understand the technologies they use, the market in which they want to operate, and the business models enabling them to build and operate a sustainable business. They need to know their customers and their needs, their competitors and their products, and the alternative choices their potential customers have. Entrepreneurs should know how to procure resources and competence, how to create the products and services using those, and how to market and sell the outcomes. They should understand finance, people management, compliance and more as their businesses grow. To know all this, they can not remain a specialist. Sooner or later, successful entrepreneurs need to become specialists in being a great generalist.

Being a generalist gives entrepreneurs a broader perspective. They know a little bit about a lot of things, and see opportunities that others might miss. They create more time as they don't spend their time learning skills for what can be done by others. Generalists have higher levels of creativity. They think outside the box and use various perspectives to shape creative solutions. Generalists have more confidence as they can tap into their wider perspective and vast ocean of skills, and they do not shy away from new challenges. Generalists can create more value for the business as they find ways to contribute to the business results. They can come up with ways to produce and sell more which can translate into better results. Generalists are opportunists. They have the ability to spot or create opportunities connecting the realities around them together aiming to serve their future customers.

Generalists can have more control over what they do which shapes their destiny and of their business. They are flexible and not religiously attached to any particular industry, technology, or market should the new realities prove the need to pivot or move on. They spend their time when it matters and delegate or divest as necessary. As a result, real entrepreneurs not only create new products and services and new businesses, but they also create skilled people (by delegating more to them) and shape the future entrepreneurs (by divesting and moving on).

In summary, generalists are able to experience a broad range of career opportunities, especially in leadership positions, preparing them to become future entrepreneurs. Not losing their sharpness in their core domains as long as necessary, staying curious about new areas, and continuously learning about the new business models and technologies can put them in the path to become great specialists in being a generalist, which is the recipe for success in entrepreneurship.


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Dr. Shahram Maralani, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Shahram G. Maralani is a Corporate Leader with more than twenty-five years of experience in a wide range of disciplines and across multiple industries and geographies. He is also an Author, a Business Mentor, and a Professional Speaker. Shahram is currently senior vice president and chief digital officer in Nemko Group A/S. In addition, he helps entrepreneurs to establish and develop Online Businesses. He is author of the book “Build an online business in 24 hours”.



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