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Being renaissance

I’m glad Tim Ferriss brought up the generalist issue today, as it’s something that’s been on my mind lately.



It started last weekend when my wife’s uncle looked at me and said “you’re a generalist”. He went on to explain that being the generalist was the approach he took in his work as a copywriter. He’s a better writer, because he’s a generalist. Everyone claims to be a generalist, but most are really not.



And I’d have to agree that I am a generalist. Writing, programming, playing classical and jazz piano, photography, yoga, coaching, design, food and cooking, entrepreneurship. These are all things I care deeply about, and spend time on. And I’ve long been fascinated with renaissance people, like James Dyson, who does both engineering and art/design as one integrated act of creation.



But somewhere inside of me, the belief lived on that being a generalist was bad. That in order to be successful I had to put all the other things aside – music, photo, food, etc. – and just focus on a few of them – programming and entrepreneurship, but that once I had achieved success though that, I’d spend more time on these other things. So I did that for about 5 years, and guess what? It didn’t work so well.



I can trace the belief back to at least one specific experience. When I first arrived in New York in 1999, I looked for jobs with the generalist hat on. I told potential employers that I could do database programming, HTML, design, and photography, but they didn’t buy it. One potential employer even had me replicate a stupid HTML table using Notepad, which showed how grossly they’d “misunderestimated” my capabilities. Then I met Philip Greenspun, who saw my potential as a programmer and hired me. So I learned the lesson that I needed to sell my skills as a programmer, and keep the other things to myself. It worked at the time, but its utility has certainly dropped.



It’s been a great relief for me these past few months to just let go of that, and indulge a little. For the first time in 5 years, I’m not in 100% “I must make this business a success” mode. I’m doing some programming to pay the bills, with a client I’ve had for 5 years and really like and enjoy working with, and then I spend my free time doing lots of photography, coaching, yoga, reading, writing, supporting my wife with her startup, and just enjoy being and learning and loving. It’s awesome.



So I’m glad that both Ole and Tim brought it out into the open, and clarified that the “jack of all trades, master of none” is a false association, because it has shattered the last thread that made me hold on to the notion that there was somehow something wrong with this approach to life. There’s not.



Stay open. Master different things. Trust that what you enjoy doing will benefit you somehow. Don’t stay with something just because you think it’s probably the right thing to do. Beware of the “when I … then I” pattern of thinking that says when I’ve achieved this, then I can get to do that thing I really want. Find a way to go do it now.

7 comments

As a more general generalist than anybody you'll ever come across, I whole-heardedly agree with this article and only point out that once you get to a certain degree of generalist-ness, becoming an expert at cultivating practical solutions to serious problems by leveraging the high-perspective insights gained from being a generalist becomes a specialty in itself. Proof of this assertion can be found in the notion that many generalists eventually come to the same habits / measures for increasing their performance as generalists (example, taking long walks to distract the left side of the brain while the right side studies patters and figures out solutions) seems to be something generalists have naturally gravitated to since recorded history. The only problem I would suggest to you is that being a generalist is exponentially more difficult than being a specialist, and as exciting as it may be to be a generalist you will need to have some fruit for your labor; in getting to the fruit however, you will come across some very unsavory aspects of life throughout history - this is as it should be - being a generalist means encompassing everything and everything includes messy stuff. Then there is the other problem ... as a generalist you will begin seeing connections and patterns in developments both intellectual and historical. You will see the world as a large chess game and things that will be quite obvious to you from your generalist viewpoint will be sound so bizarre to the more myopic members of society (ie, most people) that you'll be regularly dismissed as some kind of nut. And then if by some chance you'll still persist, then you'll inevitably begin to attract the attention of other hidden generalists who don't want you to gain the insights you'll gain from being a generalist unless they can harness you to their advantage. You'll find that control of generalists is a very well organized machine and has been so for millenia. Then of course when you see too many patterns and recognize too many things that remain hidden to people with a horse-blinder mentality, well then you become detached from social norms because you see them as irrelevant loops meant to trap the intellectually uncurious in an endless game of staying in the dark. And then you wind up borderline lunatic, frustrated perpetually by seeing things soooooo clearly yet being surrounded by unimaginative, uninspired people who not only don't know but don't care to make the effort to know ... Good luck ...
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It's a very interesting read, this one. The exact phrase: Jack of all trades, master of none, has been like a curse following me around for years. I've always insisted on staying true to my generalist nature (musician, photographer, writer and a little on the IT side), but it's tough for the same reason you describe in your New York job interview. People either don't believe it or assume that if you are a multifaceted person, you cannot be as good at whatever the job is, as the singleminded guy would be.
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I suspect maybe a reason for choosing the singleminded has to do with job stability. I certainly regard myself as a generalist also - and lately I have noticed that I sometimes see broad connections that others have been "trained" to ignore. Or which simply don't interest them. However, I also bore terribly easily. My sense of "master of none" stems from the relatively short time I can remain gathered on any specific topic (if I'm not externally required to). It often annoys me like hell; 2 weeks after starting some hobby, it fades on me. So, I get to know the basics but I never deepen my skill, thus forever reinforcing the generalist in me. The bore factor may be what employers are afraid of in generalists. Not boredom in the sense of dull but bored in the sense of lack of discipline, minds flying out the window. Perhaps not the best trait in your typical performance-driven specialist?
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Rasmus, you can only "perform" so far within a given system as a specialist; eventually the system needs to evolve and then you need generalists who can not only see the whole system, past, present, and likely future possibilities, but also many other systems and how the system relates to them in order to figure out the more likely development. But "employers" don't want to think about issues like this because they want to just have limited change and optimize (squeeze most profit) as mindlessly as possible without anybody rocking the boat and making life more complex. So contrary to what most employers say about wanting to innovate, in reality that's the last thing they want because they want to control the pace of innovation to move along slowly and comfortably; generalists see things ahead of time and see the reason to act now in order to be in a good position to take advantage of a trend that will emerge in 3 years. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, consistency ("Discpline") is only praised by dull people who lack creativity. And creativity and being a generalist seem to go hand in hand.
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Mark Aufflick

I assume you're familiar with the term polymath?
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I remember my uncle quoting some distinguished physics professor long ago. The professor had said that when searching for talent for his research teams, he was inclined to single out what he called "lateral thinkers". People who think loosely across topics, instead of diving deep into structural details at any given chance. This is probably what we're calling generalists. Apparently, the professor often looked closely at those that performed well, but not excessively well. Those that might appear lazy or ill-adjusted to academic studies - but always got through fairly well, sometimes with a minimum of disciplined effort. Those that used social skills, humour, "patchwork methodology", in the way they sought knowledge. Usually they turned out better researchers in the long run because their motivations drove their academic thinking, and not vice versa. Maybe it's a case of having people that are just lazy enough to automatically apply Occam's Razor in most things they do..?
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It's nice to know that I am not alone. Thanks for the post Lars. Now can you accompany me on job interviews and explain my affliction to potential employers?
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