I AM A GENERALIST. After 30 years of fighting specialization I say this proudly and with a measure of defiance. You will never get me to specialize!!!
Let’s get this out of the way too: being a generalist does not mean that I am unable to explore subjects deeply or create substantive content and solutions. It just means I dive in deeper quickly and with great zeal, and then when I’ve had enough swimming, I get out of the pool.
So far in my young and eclectic life i’ve been a gardener, lift operator, RA, artist, high school art teacher, truffle maker, landscape design office manager, traveler and language absorber, small business owner, marketing director, consultant, freelancer and supposed play expert. Informally I’ve been a keeper of secrets, giver of trust, guaranteer of a fun time and prolific doodler. That’s a lot of different things.
The only thread that ties them all together is that they’re all variations on the same theme: I encounter a challenge that interests me, resolve it to a degree that I find fulfilling and then move on to the next thing. Some would say this means I can’t stick with any one thing for any length of time. I propose a degree of nuance: it’s not that I can’t—it’s that I don’t want to.
I can do and have done a lot of things and there are very few experiences that I have found to be unfulfilling or un-learnable-from. But that doesn’t mean I want to repeat them or pursue them in depth. Many times the joy and engagement in doing something is found in learning how to do it, achieving a functional level of proficiency and then knowing that I never have to do it again. The experience is encapsulated as a moment in time and doesn’t have to transcend that to be valuable or worthwhile, or have contributed to my personal or professional growth. The building blocks of a life or career don’t have to be so linear--we’re not all building the same kind of house.
As a generalist with a broad skill set, one of the most difficult things for me has been distinguishing between what I can do (and what other people want me to do) and what I actually want to do.
Further complicating matters is that what I actually want to do is ever-evolving: I am essentially a professional dabbler and acquirer of skill sets. I am in constant need of new experiences and competencies to stay my happiest and sharpest. That’s just the way it is--you can’t pray the generalist away.
Another complicating (and simultaneously liberating) factor is that no direction is off limits: when you are not a specialist you don’t worry about whether or not you’ll be able to do something or are qualified to do it—you just know that you’ve learned a bunch of other new things before and you’ll be able to tackle this one too, whatever form it may take.
So how then to decide what to do next? I’ve found it easier to paint in broad strokes instead of trying to hone in on a specific thing to do or learn. As with many life processes, metrics are necessary:
"SHOULD I DO IT?" Metrics:
- Does it get me closer to my goals?
- Am I meeting smart, good people?
- Is it allowing me to present myself in a way I want to be seen?
- Is it FUN?
If it meets all 4 requirements, it's a go!
Here is my essential (and existential) beef: our culture constantly pushes towards specialization. As if with the plethora of options and experiences available to us in this modern time of glorious abundance we should somehow be content to do the same thing forever and be continuously captivated by it. Perhaps because that would make us easier to typecast and put into clear job and conversation roles. It is, after all, a lot easier to select for a specific skill set than to rely on your intuition to drive a hiring decision or social alliance. But the fact remains: there are both specialists and generalists and there will forever be.
The place it really hits home is that heinous question we all know too well: "What do you do?" There is not a ONE thing that I do. I do lots of things a little bit and it’s not a phase I’m planning to grow out of—it’s a way of being... forever! But that’s not a good elevator pitch. I tailor my "What do you do?" responses individually to everyone I meet based on what I think their interest might be and how long I want to spend talking with them. There is no one answer: one conversation I'm a social media marketer and the next I’m an illustrator and the one after that I train people to be happier and more productive through play. They're all equally true.
No one pushes specialists to generalize, to broaden their perspective or dabble in something unrelated to their specialty just for the experience or the mind-broadening properties. culturally, we have a fear of lack of depth of knowledge in one subject but no corresponding fear of lack of breadth in many subjects. I can’t help but find that slightly irrational.
Imagine you need to see a doctor for a life-saving surgery. The person who performs this surgery is a specialist. But, the person who referred you to the specialist who will be saving your life is a generalist who has a broad knowledge of what each doctor does well.
Generalists and specialists work best in tandem—generalists cover the broad strokes and specialists the fine details. So why dismiss the exploratory dabbling of generalists and presume them unfocused? Why exalt a specialist’s depth of subject knowledge without acknowledging the risk of tunnel vision?
If you too are a generalist, now is the time to proudly proclaim from all the rooftops:
I AM A GENERALIST!
It’s time to stand up and declare our collective generalist pride! The next time someone asks you what you do, tell them you do everything a little bit (one of my favorite lines, yes you can borrow it).
If they look at you like you’re nuts, they obviously haven’t read this post (yet). Feel free to refer them.