In the early days of my accounting career, a client took me aside and gave me some (unsolicited) advice. He said “Chris if you want to succeed, you should never be a white bread accountant”.

When I politely enquired what that meant, he explained that he believed an accountant should focus in on one aspect of the work- one industry, or one part of tax law or even just take on one or two big clients. He said that if I wanted to have a successful career, that was the way I should go.

Well I did the complete opposite and have taken on lots of clients in lots of different industries and tackled many different technical and practical issues for them. I have done my best to learn everything I can from each and every engagement. The result? I have become a generalist.

That client’s words often come back to me, so I have done some research.

Firstly- my own work. What I learn from one job can be of enormous value in other, completely non-related areas. I have had to learn to learn quickly and, at times, deeply when faced with new challenges. My professional development needs to be across multiple disciplines. Problem solving, a skill I learned at the coal-face of teaching, is useful in any situation, no matter the subject.

Next – the science. Research has shown some very interesting results. In the US, apparently, the best time to get rushed to hospital with an unusual type of heart failure is exactly when all of the experienced heart surgeons are away at their annual conference in Hawaii. Doctors, it appears, can become less and less expert the further they are from the rigors of their long and arduous University education and complacent after doing the same things over and over again. Experienced Accountants who are required to implement a new kind of tax deduction often perform terribly in comparison to those new to the field. Most Nobel Laureates appear to have wide ranging interests outside of their field of specialist study, as do the majority of other scientific high achievers.

Without the breadth of experience and knowledge gained over a lifetime of doing many completely different and unrelated jobs and having many and varied interests, our work is so much less in every way. If I had gone to University straight out of school and then started working for an accounting firm and was still doing the same things decades later then I would probably be excellent, but possibly complacent, at a narrow range of skills.

In conclusion?

Definitely the rye with seven ancient grains and sprouts with added vitamins and minerals and a touch of honey. We create our own unique skill set over time from work and hobbies and interests and interactions with others- and that’s what makes us all uniquely different and valuable. With a broad and diverse knowledge base, we can begin to draw connections and make analogies and solve problems and this can have surprising and very useful outcomes.

Breadth does not necessarily limit depth and, if our focus is too narrow, we run the risk of being a tree expert who cannot see the forest.