January 21, 2021

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Generalists vs. specialists

We occasionally talk around here about finding a niche for your firm. You know, focusing on something you’re good at, a specialty of either services or industry that few other firms handle. The idea being that if you’re one of only a few people who does something, that gives you rare skills and knowledge that will (hopefully) be in demand—and those people will pay you handsomely to do those rare things. In other words, you’re an expert in something.

But what if you’re not an expert in anything? Put another way, what if you’re an expert in nothing? I mean, you’re an accountant, so you have a field, you can do a lot of things and have a lot of knowledge—but beyond that, you have no expertise.

On the surface, that may sound like a disadvantage, but a guy in Japan seems to have figured out how to make nothing work:

“I used to carry around this complex, that I need to do something, but I’m not good at anything. I tried a bunch of things that I thought I’d be suitable for, but nothing stuck. So I thought, ‘I’m not suited to do anything, maybe I’m more suited to do nothing.’”

Don’t be fooled. Shoji Morimoto does do things.

One day, he’s watching a movie in a cinema and on the next he’s thousands of feet in the air on a helicopter ride. He has been to Disneyland with a client and listened to a cheater confess to an affair over a meal. Sometimes, he’s there for moral support — like when he accompanied someone in submitting divorce papers, or visited a hospital to stay with a patient who had just attempted suicide.

So, in reality
, “nothing” runs the gamut, and he charges about $100 an hour, plus food and transportation, for the pleasure. I stop short of saying “anything” because I’m sure he’s had to draw the line on some things and let’s leave it at that.

In accounting firms, this “I’m more suited to do nothing” is more commonly—and perhaps more accurately—known as a “generalist” and in some cases “expert generalist.” The idea is that you can handle just about anything that comes your way, and if the situation calls for the accounting equivalent of brain surgery, then you call in an expert. I haven’t always appreciated just how valuable that is to a lot of businesses, but I have come around to generalists being their own kind of specialist. So good on you, expert generalists!

Also, for what it’s worth, I personally like the sound of “expert nothingist,” but I understand if that comes off a little too nihilist for most people.

WFH forever… or else

As a general rule, people don’t like change. It makes us uncomfortable, Fear of the unknown and loss of control contribute to that. Plus, the bigger the change, the deeper the discomfort.

When the pandemic hit, closing offices around the world, all of a sudden a lot of people who had never worked from home before had to for the first time. No commute. No desk. No coffee with co-workers. No more awkward nods in the hallway.

This was a big change! Sure, our dogs and cats were happy with this change (okay, maybe not all the cats). But this was a severe disruption to our lives, and many people struggled with it. How else do you explain that every website now has an “At Home” section? Scores of folks have spent months trying to navigate their new homebound work lives.

And now that it has been 10 months since this WFH experiment began, people are getting comfortable with it… and aren’t interested in changing back:

Twenty-nine percent of working professionals say they would quit their jobs if they couldn’t continue working remotely, according to an online survey of 1,022 professionals by LiveCareer, an online resume and job search consulting service.

Part of what’s fascinating about all this is that people have proven to be adaptable, resilient, and even innovative in the face of extraordinary circumstances. In many ways, it has kept us sharp, made us better. And yet, we can’t help but fall back into the search for routine and consistency and comfort. So much so that 30% of people will quit a job if they have to change back to the thing they probably didn’t want to change from in the first place. Next thing you know, people will be begging to let their kids stay home from school permanently.

OTM update

On the Margins has been running for a while, and we hope you’ve been enjoying it. Since its inception, many people have asked if there’s a link to the individual newsletters, so they could be shared on social platforms or elsewhere. Sadly, we didn’t publish these weekly dispatches, so sharing them wasn’t possible. Until now.

You can now peruse the OTM archives here and share at your leisure on your social platform of choice. It’s also nice for me because I can link back to them when I know I said something smart or funny and remind everyone of it again. That’s my primary motivation, anyway.

But seriously, check out the archive and share with your friends. Hopefully they’ll enjoy it and, the best part, there are no known side effects.

Fresh from Gusto

As you may have noticed, there was a flurry of legislative activity late in 2020—including the latest round of PPP—and our content kept pace:


Read with Gusto

Want more On the Margins? Check out past editions in our archive.

Caleb Newquist Caleb is Editor-at-Large at Gusto. In 2009, he became the founding editor of Going Concern, the one-of-a-kind voice on the accounting profession, serving in the role for 9 years. Prior to Going Concern, Caleb worked as a CPA for nearly 6 years in New York and Denver. He lives in Denver with his wife, two daughters, and two cats.
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