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imagesUr-entrepreneur Steve Jobs, in his speech introducing the iPad in 2010 said the following:   “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough.  It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”

If you want to be an entrepreneur steer away from specialization.  It is the enemy of the new and disruptive and the true.  This has never been more so than now.  All aspects of enterprise are changing like lightning.  And this will do nothing but speed up.

In a like vein, The Wall Street Journal recently had an article on the increasing dangers of  specialization in higher education.  (Peter Cappelli, WSJ, pp. R1-2, Nov. 11, 2013)  The current common wisdom is that general education (the liberal arts) is quaintly old fashioned and impractical.  This is resulting in the trendy turn to courses that promise to train specific vocational skill sets and niches.  College is increasingly defined narrowly as job preparation, not as something designed to educate the whole person.  The WSJ limns the counterintuitive argument that this is exactly the wrong approach for long-term vocational hireability.  And that, I think, applies in spades to prepping an incipient entrepreneur.

Today’s jobs, problems, and needs are almost certain to change radically and rapidly.  A hot job in today’s marketplace, say in mobile marketing or hospital finance or pharma management, may, and probably will, become dead meat with the next technological permutations, regulatory changes, or innovative disruption.  The best training for all of us is in how to think globally and objectively about the future, about what’s around the bend.  And that means being a broadly trained thinker and citizen of the world, as well as a specialist in our specific vertical of product or service.

A generalist sees the forest as well as the trees and knows how to adapt nimbly and flexibly with a view to the big picture and main chance.  That’s pretty crucial for an entrepreneur.

Harking back to the previously cited WSJ article, Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce calculates that the current unemployment rate among recent IT graduates at the moment is actually twice as high as that of theater majors.  Not what you expect, huh?

david_foster_wallace_rectSince my own background is in the arts and I never trained for business, I am perhaps prejudiced toward what I see as resourcefulness and resiliency imbued by a broad generalist experience and education.  But I do believe that successful business innovation is much more aligned with creative calling than any specific skill set.  (This is why you ultimately cannot teach entrepreneurship in business school.)

Recently deceased writer David Foster Wallace told the following story at speech he gave to the Kenyon College graduating class in 2005.

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’  The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’…This story is about the real value of real education, which has nothing to do with grades or degrees and everything to do with simple awareness—awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over.

‘This is water.’ ‘This is water.’”

Thanks, David

8 Responses to “The Generalist and the Entrepreneur”
  1. Michael Drapkin says:

    Tim – you’ve hit a very hot button issue. My mentor and former Eastman dean Bob Freeman used to tout the value of an Eastman education rather than just clarinet study, for example. Of course, I have been touting how the curriculum at Eastman is out of date, yet your point is that generalism is far more effective than specialization. Yet we point to lack of college preparation as a reason for high unemployment rates among college grads. On the other hand, our wonderful daughter Shayna, who graduated from Texas State University last fall, just got a job with Oracle in a position well outside her degree. Statistics definitely don’t apply to the individual!!!

    Suzy reminds me about how often people change careers during their life, and I am certainly a great example – even now I am looking to reinvent myself on Wall Street due to opportunities in ISO 31000 risk management and AML (anti-money laundering).

    Very very good post – you got me thinking…my highest compliment!



  2. Andrew Koller says:

    Awesome post!

    You should post it to ShareBloc.

    Also, if you have any posts that are more focused on sales and marketing you should post them to our Top Content of 2013 contest.

    We’d love your support.

  3. Tim Askew Tim Askew says:

    Thanks for sharing your very practical and personal comment. We certainly agree on this one, if not on others. Thanks for continuing to read and comment.

    With warm regards,


  4. Tim Askew Tim Askew says:

    Thanks, Andrew. Glad you so enjoyed the essay. I’d be delighted to be reposted with ShareBloc. Thanks for asking.

    With warm regards,

    Tim Askew

  5. Michael Drapkin says:

    I would say that we agree on far more than we disagree. It is just that I tend to point out the disagreement in my responses!

  6. Tim Askew Tim Askew says:

    Thanks, Michael.


  7. Chiara Cokieng says:

    Hey, Tim. I’ve been reading a lot of your posts and they are a clear manifestation of how differently (and better) you play in corporate America. I know you have a unique and interesting background and I’d love to know more. Is there any place you write about how you started Corporate Rain? Chiara

  8. Tim Askew Tim Askew says:

    Hey, Chiara. Welcome to Making Rain! Many of my posts are quite personal, but try “Addiction and Entrepreneurship.” You can also try the below article from Crains’ NY. I do also write for Inc. Magazine and NY Enterprise Report.

    Warm regards,


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