Between expertise and ignorance – be a generalist

Richard Lucas January 2016
What I don’t know, why it matters, and the importance of knowing the right questions to ask
I spent a serious amount of time looking for answers to questions that are relevant to the businesses I am involved in, or researching business projects. If I find what I am looking for, I forward it on with a few comments to the person to whom it is relevant. Other times, I can’t find what I am looking for, which means an unsolved problem.
My search for answers is also inefficient because along the way I find out facts,  issues, problems and ideas that are new to me,  meaning that I distract myself with my own curiosity, and often have new business ideas.
My process involves Google (and learning how to search Google well is a skill – that – like others – can be improved), Googling people I hear on the radio,  all kinds of social media,  Linkedin, Youtube, Slideshares, Investor  information sections of listed companies, Trade Associations, Event speaker, attendee and exhibitor lists, this list is long.
When I cannot find what I am looking for I sense an opportunity. If what I want to know is valuable, the value of knowing it may be high (or perhaps worthless:-))
Years ago, a startup magazine called Proseed published a column where I acted as a kind of “Agony Aunt” to entrepreneurs.   I am not so arrogant – I hope-  as to share my “wisdom” about everything I read.  If I don’t have something to say it is better to stay quiet.   Derek Sivers shares his notes about the books he has read and recommends on his excellent blog – but he is successful with some excellent and hugely popular TED talks behind him, not to mention his business success with CD Baby which he sold for US$20 million.

I am however going to flip it round. I am planning to start posting questions I don’t know the answer to, and to explain why these are important.

If some contacts me and can help, then maybe they can be a business partner, or potentially work for me finding the solution.

Why bother? why does this matter?
The gap between being ignorant, a generalist and a specialist is important to understand.
To be a successful entrepreneur – I recommend the advice of my father J. R. Lucas – who said to me when I was a teenager – “don’t be a specialist – if you need a specialist you can always find one” and that once you have a specialist skill you may well end up working using the skill in which you specialise for the rest of your life, because that will be the best rewarded in the short run.  This is not a bad outcome if this is what you want to do, but is not for anyone who doesn’t love their job.
My father’s advice is not great for anyone who has not worked out a way of generating income for themselves. Anyone who has never held down a professional salary should read  So Good They Can’t Ignore You  which sets out the opposing case for getting really good at something rather than following just your passion. The book is well summarised by Derek Sivers here .  If you are able to bring in more than enough money, without having a specific skill – this means you may never need to get one.  You may have the “what it takes” to be an entrepreneur. The ability to persuade people to buy things from you when you don’t know what you are talking about is worth having.
(thought the wherewithal to sell things you are not a specialist in, while showing an impressive ability to be convincing,  may involve taking risks of major problems).
While there are reasons not to be a specialist, I am not arguing for, or celebrating ignorance.  You should aim to be a generalist, to know enough to ask the right questions, to tell if someone is BS-ing  you, and to be able to tell a specialist what you want and why.  A version of the 80/20 Pareto rule applies –  that you can learn 80% of what matters quickly, the remain 20% may be for the specialist. Read the Wikipedia entry, watch a TED talk or two, read The Economist. listen to a podcast, watch the most popular slideshares, skim the top ten entries on Google, and within an hour you will know much more than most, and maybe enough to find a specialist.  Maybe then you can hire or find the specialist.
I regularly listen to the Digital Marketing Podcast from Target Internet for its clear language, sensible advice, easy to understand and recently I heard this episode about Programmatic Advertising.  (Once when I wrote to Daniel Rowles – the CEO and founder – and he wrote back immediately with helpful advice, a great way to make him a potential partner in the future. I am researching B2B marketing using Adsense type marketing. This podcast enabled me to search intelligently, finding list like this  with specialist firms, and making me confident to post here on Facebook.
European B2B Startup Group on FacebookThe post shows that as well as needing a specialist I know enough not to be ripped off and to deter digital marketing agencies that don’t know what they are talking about. I’d heard of Real Time Bidding RTB before, but not SSP,  DSP and various another acronyms.
The conclusion – > Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know ad hoy are not a specialist but not before you have spent an hour or two turning yourself into a generalist.  And here is another great podcast from Daniel about how to keep your digital skills up in the world of specialists. Effectively he is advising listeners to be generalists.
And if you know how to help organise our RTB on line research, get in touch.

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