How many times have you been told to focus, to narrow your efforts and really zero in on what you’re good at? Whether you’re an athlete or a startup founder or an artist, the conventional wisdom for decades has been that specialization leads to mastery leads to inevitable success.
It makes perfect sense and has worked for countless experts, but then there’s Elon Musk, who seems to focus on everything all at once, upending entire industries each time he sets his attention on something new.
Surely it helps that Musk made a bundle very young with PayPal to spend on Tesla and SpaceX and has a legendary work ethic, but some keen observers suspect Musk’s clear lack of a singular central focus may actually be the secret to his repeated successes.
Entrepreneur and author Michael Simmons has studied Musk and his career and sees an alternate theory of success in the serial founder’s biography.
“I call people like Elon Musk “expert-generalists,” Simmons wrote recently on Medium. “Expert-generalists study widely in many different fields, understand deeper principles that connect those fields, and then apply the principles to their core specialty.”
Part of the idea, as Simmons explains it, is that instead of becoming all-knowing in a narrow field as most of us are encouraged to do, Musk has always been ravenous to learn about a variety of things, which allows him to transfer things he’s learned about one area to other areas where they might be applicable.
This is clearly what fuels some of his most innovative endeavors – he made the connection between solar power and Tesla’s electric cars, and between his interest in artificial intelligence and ways it will make Teslas autonomous. This type of “learning transfer” goes even further – perhaps one day connecting Teslas to the neural lace implanted in a driver’s brain.
This isn’t a phenomenon solely animated by Elon Musk. Calls for more interdisciplinary studies and collaboration between various fields have been heard in response to the refrain of specialization for decades as well.
But with increasingly crowded markets of all types, we assume intuitively that generalists are a dime a dozen and specialization is the better strategy to be not only competitive, but perhaps even command a premium for whatever your expertise might be.
But as Musk’s story demonstrates, the truth may be that the decades-long boom in specialization has now left glaring gaps between deep trenches of expertise. Daring to be more of a generalist or a multiple specialist is an opportunity to throw a ladder down those trenches, lifting the experts out of their deep silos so they can help us all build new towers reaching fantastic heights for all to see and enjoy.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.