Ron Howard, famous mostly for playing Richie Cunningham on the television program Happy Days, is one of the film industry’s most successful directors and producers, having been involved with a long list of films. He directed, among others, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, The DaVinci Code, Frost/Nixon, and Angels and Demons. I happened to catch Ron and the rest of the Happy Days team on television this weekend, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the television show. The special aired several years ago and featured the actors and creative team talking about their experiences.
I’ve seen in previous interviews Ron Howard explain that he was always interested in directing. Garry Marshall, the creator of Happy Days, was a mentor to Ron, and first worked with Ron on an episode of Love, American Style. This episode, “Love and the Happy Days,” was a nostalgic look at the 1950s that wound up being a precursor to Garry Marshall’s Happy Days. Garry’s advice to Ron and to others involved with the show was to wear many hats.
Ron likely knew by this time that his hair was thinning, and Garry’s advice may have inspired Ron Howard’s trademark look of wearing hats to cover up the fact that his is follicularly challenged, but I believe the advice was more meant to encourage action beyond acting. With Ron’s goals of directing, Garry wanted the young actor to experience as many aspects of film and video production as possible.
Specialism vs. generalism
Specialism is the philosophy of finding one thing at which you might excel and nurturing your abilities in that skill, pursuing excellence, without nurturing other skills. This is how many people eventually succeed. For example, Mark Nuccio is the acting principal clarinetist for the New York Philharmonic. To be the principal clarinetist in this ensemble, you simply have to be the best (non-retired) clarinetist in the world. The New York Philharmonic is likely the most coveted ensemble for classical performers, and for a clarinetist aspiring to be the best in the world, the principal position in that ensemble is the apex.
It is likely that Mark has done not much outside of performing and practicing music on the clarinet since high school. Any time he spent on any other activity would be time not focused on the goal of being the best clarinetist in the world. The world needs such dedicated souls.
I see the “specialist” argument used to encourage career growth:
- After 10,000 hours of practice, whether it is playing an instrument or coding in Java, according to author Malcolm Gladwell, you are likely an expert.
- Experts are sought after for most higher-level positions in corporations.
- Personal branding and marketing will be stronger when they involve a single message.
Specialism may well be the ideal for today’s modern, capitalist culture. I’d like to encourage some people, especially those who might have a strong aptitude for many different fields or have no particular driving passion for any career choice, to consider generalism. In Italy during the Renaissance, this was a highly regarded approach to knowledge and experience. Here is the concept of being a Renaissance man (or, today, woman):
It embodied the basic tenets of Renaissance humanism which considered humans empowered, limitless in their capacities for development, and led to the notion that people should embrace all knowledge and develop their capacities as fully as possible. Thus the gifted humans of the Renaissance sought to develop skills in all areas of knowledge, in physical development, in social accomplishments and in the arts.
Benjamin Franklin was a generalist. He is known as a printer, author, politician, political theorist, scientist, and inventor, among others. While he could have spent all his time focusing on any one of these activities, his historical importance relies on him being involved in activities that cross the spectrum. He, and most people who specialize, would not be considered the “best of the best” in any of these fields, but his broad skill set solidified his place in history.
The benefits of generalism are not confined to a chapter in a history book.
Generalism makes you more marketable to companies. I mentioned it is easier for specialists to market themselves — or, more precisely, for marketers to work with specialists, as a specialist would by definition not be very good at marketing themselves unless their specialty is marketing. Even though it is easier, it’s not better. Unless you have evidence that you are among the best in the world at your specialty, it’s quite possible that someone more accomplished at the one skill upon which you are relying is applying for that same job.
In an economy where unemployment is high, the supply of applicants is more than the demand. In this competitive environment, job seekers need to emphasize anything that makes them unique. When a company’s resources are low, they are more likely to be attracted to an prospective employee who can fill many roles. Someone with a variety of needed skills — someone who can take over the responsibilities of more than one function — is seen as a bargain for the salary.
Generalists make better business owners. Particularly during a start-up phase, a business owner needs to take care of various functions by herself. Particularly if the funds for outsourcing have not yet materialized, she needs to market the business, build the website, write up the business plan, secure funding, handle the accounting, negotiate with suppliers, research the market to stay ahead of the competition, advertise, provide customer service for the existing clients, and find new clients. It is not a surprise that, according to the Small Business Association, half of all new small businesses don’t survive four years, even after taking to account that some of these attempts may be an entrepreneur’s second or third start-up.
Specialists are often drawn to entrepreneurship although they lack varied skills necessary for success. Success rates do improve after initial failures, after business owners can determine which skills need refinement.
Generalism leads to a more fulfilling life. Like Mark Nuccio, I could have spent every waking moment practicing my clarinet. I would have become an excellent performer, perhaps even one of the 100 best in the world given the right opportunities and focus. It would still be very unlikely I would have become the principal clarinetist in a Big Five orchestra. Instead, I spent time performing on other instruments, such as trumpet, guitar, piano, and percussion. Experience on a variety of instruments would help me be a better music teacher.
Furthermore, I had interests outside of music performance. I’ve been an amateur computer programmer since I started playing with a Commodore VIC-20 when I was about eight years old. In college, I started a number of minors, including computer science and psychology, eventually settling on music business. Several years ago, when I decided to pursue a Master’s degree in business when the opportunity was almost completely free, I decided against specializing in either finance or accounting; I took enough classes across the business spectrum to get exposure to as much as possible.
More recently, I’ve taken my interest in photography to the next level by enrolling in classes to help improve these skills even though they are not connected to anything I’ve ever done professionally. I have a long way to go before I my photography skills are comparable with professional photographers; in fact, even some of my friends who have had no formal training but have a certain knack often show me how their skills exceed mine. Regardless of my progress relative to others, expanding my knowledge into other areas keeps my brain active and adds more dimension to my identity.
Wearing many hats, as Ron Howard has done after advice from Garry Marshall, will protect that active brain.
Photo credit: SashaW
Updated January 19, 2011 and originally published December 21, 2009.