Tux Creative House
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TUX’s generalist mindset

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Which is better, a generalist or a specialist?

Ludwig Ciupka, Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer

If you say specialist, you’re not alone. We live in a world of expertise and narrowly focused specialties. After all, we’ve been indoctrinated to believe you have to specialize to be a true expert. You have to focus on one thing and get really good at it, because specialists make more money. People want to work with a specialist. After all, would you go to a general practitioner if you needed to be treated for cancer? Of course not!

As the founder of TUX, I struggled with this notion for years. I dealt with feelings of shame for not being an industry specialist. I’m not from the agency world, and I didn’t expect to land here. But who does, really? I don’t remember meeting anyone in this industry who beat a clear path to advertising. It seems like every art director I know was supposed to be something else but ended up working for an agency. So, if taking an indirect path is common in this industry, then why the sense of shame?

Back in 2008, an industry publication wrote an article about me titled “Un touche-à-tout pressé” (which in a literal translation means some who is in a hurry to touch everything). My young ego was pleased with the glossy page, but today I realize that the article instilled a lingering feeling that remained with me. In hindsight, it suggested that I wasn’t taking the proper time to perfect my expertise, as if it were a mistake to pursue all of my interests. It made me feel like a cheat. I had been labelled a “generalist” for the first time, and the label certainly seemed pejorative.

Here's the thing, though. I’ve since learned that being a generalist isn’t as bad as everyone thinks. As a matter of fact, I may even change your mind as to which is better.

A generalist battling in a specialized world

Halfway through my journey as an entrepreneur, I met casually with a young duo who produced graphic design work that I truly appreciated. Even though I had by then built a multi-disciplinary team of thirty people, this pair was able to re-ignite in me a profound feeling of doubt.

We were amicably discussing our business realities when a loaded sentence was launched my way. Here it is: “I don’t think you realize, but we don’t do the same thing.” They were a graphic design studio offering branding, and we also offered branding as a service – so how were we different?

They were implying that we at TUX were jacks of all trades and masters of none. I decided that I had been looked down on for the last time. Deep down inside, I knew that my “unconventional” path somehow gave me a competitive advantage, and I would set out to prove it. Today, I run a successful business of seventy-five talented generalists, and I am putting the misconception of the “non-expert”  to rest.

The generalist journey

The journey to becoming an expert-generalist is a long one. All those years of “variable practice” make professional growth seem slower at first. It can be frustrating to see others specialize and rapidly sharpen their craft and get rewarded for it. But you have to understand that while specialists experience logarithmic professional growth, the compounded knowledge of generalists eventually kicks in exponentially. Through their first sampling phase, generalists gather a broader toolbox of flexible knowledge that ultimately unlocks the superpower of transfer. This is the ability to identify the deeper structure of a problem rather than just diving in and executing procedures a million times.

Generalists don’t implement cookie-cutter solutions; they train to troubleshoot and problem-solve by finding or creating the correct solution. What we offer at TUX is a more robust thinking system that draws from many different sets of tools and experiences. For a project, you meet with planners, designers, coders, producers, and media specialists – all of whom have developed a generalist mindset and are able to transfer knowledge. My team understands that boxed thinking is over. Here is a great podcast on variable practice and transfer:

See podcast

Not convinced? Don’t take my word for it.

Author David Epstein wrote a book titled Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. In it he argues that “a closer look at research on the world’s top performers, from professional athletes to Nobel laureates, shows that early specialization is the exception, not the rule.” In the rare cases of classical musicians or other roles where repetition in exact motion is necessary, specialists are outliers.

Solving your team’s wicked problems

Through our generalist experience and knowledge, we’ve not only created unique work for our clients, but we are using it to dig in and fight “wicked” problems. Wicked problems are those that beset businesses in uncertain environments, facing ill-defined challenges with few rules and rapid change. Over the last few years, it hasn’t been hard to identify wicked problems – they seem to be everywhere. Breadth of experience is invaluable in solving these wicked problems because we are able to use “conceptual reasoning skills that can connect new ideas and work across contexts.”

Our clients either don’t have the proper teams in place or sufficient distance or perspective on their business to optimize their efforts and pinpoint the deeper structural fixes.

You can be sure that we will analyze your needs and business and deploy efforts only where they make the greatest impact on your business.

As a team of generalists, we allow for more flexibility, enabling us to pivot as we uncover structural insights. Your dedicated team will always be the right team. We invite you to open your field of view fully to 360 degrees and tap into our greater consciousness and experiences. LET’S DIG IN.