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.