I'm a fan of high performers, which is why I research and write about the topic. So when my friends Jake and James recently spoke about the mythical unicorn, I heard it thru the lens of developing high performers.
If you don't know what a unicorn is, the concept sprung up several years ago in the Silicon Valley as more and more startups were hiring developers. If Google had been about engineering and Apple had been focused on experience (& design), then the new startups wanted ambidextrous folks who could do both – the rare unicorn.
But they're rare. And the question gets raised whether it should even be something to pursue.
It reminds me of runners in high school who run cross country and track. Sure it's running – but a very different kind of running. Sprinters have to train differently than runners racing in three mile races.
How do you become a high performer? Well even though I don't believe in unicorns, I don't think specialization is the right answer up front.
Initially, Be a Generalist & Specialist
Whenever you hear people talk about becoming a specialist, or use illustrations including snipers, SWAT, or surgeons, you need to contextualize what you're hearing. Because few snipers or surgeons are twenty. While the right long-term approach, specialization comes after you know what you're good at and what you enjoy doing.
But how do you know what you like or do well without trying more than one thing? That's why starting broadly to build a base of generalist skills makes more sense. Not an end goal, but a good start.
But even as you test the waters across multiple fields, I think it makes sense to make an effort to go deep in one area. That's truly the only way to really learn something. And the more you dig in, the sooner you learn some key lessons:
- You never know as much as you think you do
- The more you know, the more questions you have
- Learning is often slow and repetitive
- Only looking back will you realize how far you've come
Eventually, Focus on your Strengths
What my friends, Jake & James, did suggest, which I agree with 100%, is that downstream, later in life, specialization is where the money is at. In the end, we pay more for specialists. So it makes sense that after you've spent time developing some specific skills, while also testing yourself broadly, you have enough insight (into yourself, your likes, wants and desires) to determine where your strengths truly are. And that's when you want to lean into it and stop worrying about the fact that you're not good (or great) and twenty different things.
Most people look over a year, see what they've done less well than everything else, and then try to improve it. I suggest doing the opposite. Look back over your year and see what you did really well. Then lean into that even better. Over time you may master many different specialties and suddenly look like a Unicorn, but you won't have pursued a Unicorn's path – which may leave you with disappointing results.
Lastly, the benefit of that early work across so many disciplines will help you learn to work effectively with others. Because you'll have rough mental models, you'll be able to respect and interact well with people who specialize in those areas. I don't have to be a brake specialist to leverage my mental model of how they work – which tells me that when I hear a noise, I need to take it in. My mental models help me interact better with others – without requiring me to master their skills.
Want to see Jake & James?
I've spoken about these two guys enough. Maybe I should just step out of the way and let you hear things from them directly.