In praise of the Generalists

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

-Robert A. Heinlein

I want to start out by saying that experts and masters in their field certainly deserve the praise society gives them. The Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Muhammad Ali’s of their fields have sacrificed a lot and intensely focused on their craft. When one dives so deeply into one field one can also learn lessons that can apply elsewhere in life, as universal truths reveal themselves that transcend a particular field.

Indeed, specialization of labor has surely made us more and more efficient as people. We have really developed a deep understanding in our particular fields and when working together with other experts are able to produce remarkable results. However, there are also dangers associated with a person over developing in a narrow field without being exposed to a variety of other areas. This is what I want to write about.

In modern society it seems that one can only get ahead if one really specializes in a narrow field and tries to become the best in the world. Renaissance men, like Leonardo DaVinci or Benjamin Franklin, who excelled and expressed themselves in a variety of fields seem to no longer exist and attempting to be one impossible.

We are no longer just doctors, engineers and lawyers. We are so specialized in a particular subset of those professions and thereby often lose sight of the big picture. We can miss opportunities by combining ideas from different fields. This can not only be harmful to success in our careers but also to our health.

Personally, I’ve spent too much time in my head, sitting down, and studying. Neglecting the body by not exercising and moving enough. Sitting too much does a lot of damage. The interesting thing is that as we spend time developing the body our mind benefits as well.

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert makes a great case for the generalist by describing the concept of skills stacking. Instead of becoming the worlds best in one narrow field he suggest that we focus on developing complementary skills that when combined can be world class. Scott ascribes his success with Dilbert not to being the best cartoonist or the funniest person. Instead he is pretty good at writing, pretty funny and a decent artist. Putting those three skills together however is where he really sticks out. There are not that many cartoonist who are pretty good at all three of these categories.

For the past year I’ve lived in Washington D.C. – One of the first questions you encounter here when meeting new people is: “So what do you do?” Of course useful biographical information but too often it leads to judgments of who that person is. We identify with our jobs too much. That is we really believe that what we do to earn money creates an identity for us. It is no longer something we do but something we are. This I believe is really dangerous and unhealthy.

So what I’m saying is that its ok to be a Generalist. You do not have to find your one true passion in life. If one arises, by all means dive into it, but do not force it. You can combine many of them and funny enough if they compliment each other thereby become a specialist in this newly combined specialty.