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The Best Entrepreneurs Are Generalists, Not Experts

If one thing is for certain, it’s this: starting a business is grueling. Growing that business can be even harder.

The difference between success and failure often comes down to the ability to quickly pivot and correct course. This requires many things of an entrepreneur, including creativity, confidence and collaboration. But the most important factor, I would argue, is the power of being a generalist. Let me explain.

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The world needs experts. We count on them to change our world for the better — from researchers developing vaccines to environmentalists solving climate change. Their work requires highly specific knowledge that we depend upon. But when it comes to starting a business from scratch, entrepreneurs are best prepared when they have wide-ranging capabilities. Here’s why. 

You’re most likely cash-strapped and understaffed when launching a startup. You begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together, but ambiguity and overwhelm can creep in. Agility is key — and the more “hats” you’re able to wear, the better equipped you’ll be. As an entrepreneur, I’ve worked in business development, product, marketing and technology roles. While we can’t be experts in all of these areas, a flexible and curious mind goes a long way in overcoming challenges and seeing things through to the finish line. That’s because generalists know how to seek, absorb and capitalize on learning new information, constantly.

The benefits of being a generalist extend far beyond the startup world. Steve Jobs credited Apple’s success to his ability to “connect the dots.” If we want to succeed in business, we must be able to cross-pollinate existing ideas from a wealth of unrelated disciplines. This concept has also been discussed in the book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” written by David Epstein, who argues that modern work demands a higher level of movement between different concepts and that “mental meandering and personal experimentation are sources of power.” If you want to achieve more as an entrepreneur, you must regularly expose yourself to new ideas across multiple categories.

Here’s one example. As a product manager, you have to be very focused on numbers. You also need to know how to evaluate the entire sales funnel. It’s vital to have a step-by-step breakdown of your customer journey, from awareness to point of purchase to brand ambassador, in order to fully appreciate how people interact with your product. When you look at it this way, marketing activities are treated in the same way a software engineer approaches a bug in a line of code. You have to ask yourself a series of questions: Why did it happen? What caused it? How do you fix it? How do you prevent it from happening again? Generalists have mastered this interdisciplinary approach, which allows them to apply their thought processes across the entire business to innovate, troubleshoot and problem solve.

Here are three habits to help you become a generalist.

Learn Both Hard Skills & Soft Skills

When I was at university, I studied software development and classical literature. It was an unusual but complementary pairing: one very tactical-and-technical, the other analytical-and-philosophical. As an entrepreneur, it pays to have both hard and soft skills. Perhaps you have the financial acumen to develop  a comprehensive business plan, but can you tell your brand’s story in a compelling way to investors? While these two activities would fall under the “fund raising” umbrella, they actually require very different skills. That’s why I’m an advocate of a broad-and-balanced education.

Schedule Time to Read & Take Notes Every Single Day

I have never left the house without a book. Expand your collections; pick new topics or simply new perspectives. If you want to be a generalist, you need to constantly seek out smart, credible and thoughtful information from various sources. And whenever my reading sparks an idea, I write it down. This life-long habit is what inspired me to launch my latest venture: Deepstash. It’s a B2C web and mobile social platform where users — affectionately dubbed ‘Stashers’ — can publish bite-size ideas from books, articles, podcasts and videos across a variety of topics. They can also curate their own “stash” of inspirational content and ideas in one place. We’ve formed a community of 1 million+ high achievers who want to wisely — not mindlessly — scroll on social media to learn about everything from cryptocurrency to psychology. Be cognizant of how you spend your screen time and prioritize learning in every possible moment.

Take Part in Fun Activities You’re Passionate About

I’ve always been a fan of techno music, so while I was at university, I started a band. My music skills are debatable, but through this experience, my performance skills improved dramatically, giving me a huge confidence boost. Now, if I’m facing a daunting round of funding or need to speak live at an event, I have the courage to get into performance mode. Music also taught me the value of “practice makes perfect.” My point is this: choose something you enjoy, or something you’ve always wanted to try, and give it your best. No matter the outcome, you will have always learned something new. And that’s one more notch on your “Generalist” belt.

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