(Talent Stack: a concept that involves combining ordinary skills to create something extraordinary.)
Back in the late 1800s, businesses found it was better to have someone who knew how to work that one lever. do a simple task again and again. or focus on a slice of the conglomerate that was the early industrial age.
And thus was born the specialist.
Eventually, the tasks became more challenging, and specialists required more and more education and experience to accomplish that one thing that had to be done.
Universities popped up like mushrooms after a rain in Georgia and found they could make a ton of money by cranking out ‘specialists’. People who “majored” in something or other and got a smashing and shiny new degree.
Bob was a specialist in mechanical drawing.
Sue proved she was a specialist in Financial Forensics.
Pat got a certification certifying that they were a certified specialist in “Suburban Rock Guitar Solos After Jimmy Hendrix but Before Bon Jovi”.
All that specialization is being taught by, you guessed it, specialists.
And soon it will become worthless.
The AI Revolution: An Intellectual IED aimed at the heart of specialization
AI is revolutionizing various industries, performing complex tasks with unprecedented efficiency and precision. This arguable advancement has its focus directly on specialists, who possess deep expertise in specific domains. You see, deep expertise in specific domains is exactly what AI was created for.
AI can diagnose cancer.
AI can do taxes.
AI can even hold its own in court, or at least it is on the cusp.
Domains once held by certified specialists with certifications and degrees and even more, you know, certifications.
Along the way, AI is devastatin… err… revolutionizing low-value jobs faster than you can say, “Toldja so…”
If AI can diagnose illnesses, it can certainly check groceries, drive a truck, and do your bookkeeping. Hell, I bet it will replace those folks who cook your burgers. Oh, wait.
“Ol’ Joe specialized in making the most delicious burgers in Atlanta, and then came AI.”
Now Joe has the luxury of time cause he doesn’t make burgers anymore.
He is also broke because he doesn’t have a job either.
(The tsunami of crap headed our way is going to be more epic than anyone is ready for. Guaranteed.)
So prepare to be future-proof!
The Specialist’s Dilemma
Specialists, though experts in their fields, will have to confront several challenges in the AI era:
- Too Narrow a Focus: Deep specialization can lead to a constricted view, a liability in a dynamic world. When things are moving fast, you have to be able to reach across domains to find a solution. And that solution may not be readily seen by a specialist who is only vested in their one domain.
- Vulnerability to Automation: The risk of automation looms large for tasks that are highly specialized. Building cars will be automated with AI before you know it. Airplane construction inspectors will be replaced by AI because AI doesn’t make mistakes and can be programmed to check and recheck eleven million times. Lawyers, accountants, those teachers of specialization at the universities we talked abou — yeah, they are going to find themselves replaced by highly capable, non-emotional, politically indifferent AI learning pods. Or whatever they will call them. Even doctors will face an uphill battle by 2025.
- Lack of Adaptability: Pivoting becomes challenging when their area of expertise is threatened or becomes less relevant. Have you ever seen a classical musician try to play jazz? Yeah, that doesn’t usually work out that well. It is because they are specialists in their instruments and the genre they perform. On the other hand, many jazz players can meld right into the symphony because they are in touch with their instrument, not the detailed study of a specific genre. Many jazz players can play across a dozen genres.
The Generalist Advantage
This is where generalists with a strong and diverse talent stack have an edge:
- Adaptability: Generalists, being versatile learners, quickly adapt to new situations and challenges. They see laterally instead of vertically. They can see multiple solutions because they have worked across multiple platforms. AI is not yet capable of mirroring this adaptability to comprehend and visualize a problem across multiple contexts. I am not sure it ever will.
- Creative Problem Solving: A broad knowledge base enables them to approach problems from different perspectives, often leading to innovative solutions. Writers may be inspired by music or art. Artists are often inspired by photography or dance. For writers, the inspiration may come from a conversation or a simple walk through a new neighborhood. Using their inspiration across domains, they create work that is not siloed, but vast and diverse,
- Cross-Disciplinary Insights: They often see connections and opportunities that remain hidden in silos. At my ad agency, we would have an annual lunch to discuss creativity with a select group of guests. The attendees were dancers, choreographers, writers, photographers, car mechanics, bankers, architects, and journalists. Once we had the guy who made the best BBQ in the area come to one of our creative lunches and he stole the show with amazing insight gathered from being a Marine, a pilot, a cop, and a BBQ restaurant owner.
- Resilience: A diverse skill set means they have more options when one area becomes less in demand. I am always telling my students to create as many channels of income as they can. Channels can provide stability when the specialist thing you do hits a snag. Versatility in domains means versatility in income.
The Talent Stack: A Generalists’ Secret Weapon
The core of the generalist’s strength lies in their talent stack.
For instance; a photographer who can design and shoot videos and help a client with their e-commerce site is vastly more valuable to a client than one that simply shoots the photos and disappears.
A writer who can also illustrate their articles and provide social media boosts in the form of graphics can be invaluable to a business.
I call it future-proofing.
And I think it is damned important.
A generalist skilled in data analysis, graphic design, and communication can analyze trends, create engaging visuals, and convey complex information effectively. This combination of skills creates a synergy that AI alone cannot replicate.
Think Gordon Parks. A black photojournalist in the 50s, a highly respected member of Magnum, an art photographer, a painter, a screenwriter, a film director, and a composer of orchestral music. Parks was one of my early heroes and I never stopped thinking of that multi-talented man and how courageous it would be to create such a legacy.
Bridging the Gap
Generalists with strong talent stacks will do more than just coexist with AI; they will enhance its capabilities. They act as the link between AI’s computational power and human creativity, leveraging technology to augment their diverse skill sets. AI will also make them more competitive and add to their skill set by introducing even more possible talents to add to their already impressive stack.
Embracing the Generalist Mindset
To capitalize on the generalist opportunities in the AI era, adopting a talent-stack approach is key:
- Always be Learning: Develop a lifelong learning habit that spans various fields. I am currently learning Figma and Webflow. I am concentrating on these two as I think they will be door openers for a lot of things I am planning. I know Wordpress, but I think it is important for me to expand.
- Skill Diversification: Build a talent stack that aligns with your interests and career objectives. Keep them complimentary at first. Branch out later as you feel you can take on more.
- Interdisciplinary Collaboration: Work alongside specialists; learn to see as they see, but not ONLY as they see. Develop the ability to switch domains, straddle genres, and generally create mayhem with systems that seem too rigid.
- Adaptability: Remain as agile as a 5'11" ballerina taking orders at a drive-in burger shop in Tulsa. Be ready to pivot, swing to the left, slide to the right, and deliver the food piping hot and delicious for your customer.
The rise of AI may not totally diminish the value of a specialist, but it will open up possibilities to the generalists who have a deep — and wide — set of skills and talents. and can apply those skills, using AI where appropriate.
The future will belong to those who can blend the depth of specialization with the breadth of generalism and provide creative solutions that transcend domain and genre — and even the capabilities of AI
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