Original Link : https://medium.com/@kittyireland/unspecialized-a595c128ef59
The Random, Beautiful Life of a Generalist
What do you want to be when you grow up?
How about a little bit of everything?
According to common wisdom, those who are the best at what they do succeed in life. The skillful neurosurgeon is highly rewarded, while the unskillful one is…sued. Practice for ten thousand hours and you can be a great cellist/ coder/ surfer/ painter. Decide what you want to do with your life and focus your energy on that one thing. Become a great_______.
Back in the day, the answer to “what do you do?” could generally fit into a neat, easily describable box. I’m a pediatrician. I’m a corporate lawyer. I drive a truck. You had a specific skillset to do a specific job, or you were probably unemployed.
When people ask me what I do, I start with: I work at the library, but I’m not a librarian. If they want to know more, I throw in that I work in the marketing department. If really pressed I will let them know my job title: Content Strategist. Rather than waiting for them to ask, I follow that up with a flurry of explanation about web content, social media and “wearing many hats in a small department.” In a vague way, most people under 60 or so get the gist.
I am — and have been for my entire 30-year career — a generalist.
The Rise of the Generalist
Buckminster Fuller was the first person to refer to himself as a “generalist” and often decried specialization as a dangerous and undesirable path. As he pointed out:
Advancing science has now discovered that all the known cases of biological extinction have been caused by overspecialization, whose concentration of only selected genes sacrifices general adaptability. Thus the specialist’s brief for pinpointing brevity is dubious. In the meantime, humanity has been deprived of comprehensive understanding. Specialization has bred feelings of isolation, futility, and confusion in individuals. It has also resulted in the individual’s leaving responsibility for thinking and social action to others.
In the world of work, most of us have seen this play out in some way in in our lifetimes. Hundreds of thousands of specialized jobs in printing and photo processing have simply disappeared in the last thirty years. Specialized factory work has been automated. The displaced workers have had to adapt and learn a new skill set in order to survive.
There weren’t many jobs for generalists in the corporate world before the rise of “middle management” in the corporate structure. These oft-derided positions are essential glue in large organizations, and it turns out that the wearer of “many hats” can also be critical in startups and small businesses. Most entrepreneurs are generalists by necessity; you have to be your own marketing, accounting and HR departments until you are big enough to hire those specialists.
Steve Jobs was famously a generalist. The man dropped out of college, took one calligraphy class that got him into rounded corners, went to India for awhile, started a hobby of building computers in his garage (with no training in engineering), and decided to launch a business with his friend. Other than “being kind of a dick,” he never specialized.
How to Become a Generalist
First, be interested in everything (or at least more than one thing). I went to art school right out of high school. There, I learned to cut Rubylith with an Exacto knife, create hand-lettered signs, use an airbrush, and sketch naked people. None of these skills turned out to have much practical application in my work or personal life, but I still appreciate the knowledge, and I still like to create visual art sometimes (now mostly photography).
At the same time, I’ve always been a writer and a reader of literature and popular fiction alike. I’ve also chosen to learn the basics of web development, started multiple blogs, learned the art of bookkeeping (and taxes) for small business, have a keen interest in data analytics, really wish I could understand quantum mechanics, and I’m slightly obsessed with crime procedurals. But I’ve never learned to play a musical instrument. Go figure.
Second, try on some hats. When you work for a startup or small business, chances are you will get to wear multiple hats early in your career. For me, that included doing web writing while working as an agency coordinator, developing subscription databases while working as a mail order manager for a publisher, working with a comedian on content for an app, and learning about social media marketing through trial and error. Even if you are a specialist, you can still try on some other hats in your free time. My ex-father-in-law is a hematologist (pretty specialized!) who ran a lab, and then a blood bank for his entire career. He also learned five languages, taught himself to play piano as an adult, and has a wood shop where he builds elaborate cabinets.
Third, professionalize your interests. It’s all well and good to say, “I’m interested in many things! I contain multitudes!,” but no one is going to pay you for that. If you’re an entrepreneur, there’s an opportunity to create a unique business model around your interests and generalist skills, but if you are looking for a job, you have to recognize how your generalist skills actually do fit into many well-paid roles — especially in management and strategy — and tailor your resume to fit the role you want, including learning new skills if needed.
Finally, keep learning. There’s always more to learn. There are new technologies to master, new scientific discoveries to change your perceptions, more languages to speak and places to travel. Options for learning new things are more accessible than ever. Just browse around Udemy and see what’s on sale for $9.99 today.
Be a Generalist, Not a Writer
Even if you are already an established writer with published work and a steady income, I argue that it is more profitable and rewarding to keep writing, and also branch out to become a generalist. Writing is almost always part of the generalist repertoire, and it has been my keystone skill in my professional life for over a decade. But getting locked into “writer” can be dangerous.
Writing is notoriously underpaid work. Unless you’re Margaret Atwood or Steven King, you’re probably not getting rich off your novel (presuming you’ve finished writing it). Those hustling for freelance work are living in a constant state of financial insecurity, or a feast/ famine cycle, not to mention paying for health insurance.
During a break between full-time jobs about five years ago, I had a choice. I could focus on writing — something I’d been wanting to do for years — or I could leverage my other skills and experience and do some consulting work. As a copywriter without a deep portfolio or existing clients, I would be lucky to average $40/hr. As a “content strategy consultant” I charged $150/hr and my clients paid it. I also hired copywriters for them, even though I could have done that work as well. I didn’t want to devalue my expertise.
Being a generalist makes you — and your life — more interesting. Having multidimensional interests and expertise also gives you a lot more to write about, and Medium is a great platform to explore those interests and find others interested in the same topics.
Polymaths and Rising STEAM
These days, educators are realizing that our changing world calls for a broad and adaptable skill set. Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) is the soup du jour for kids in the 21st century. This concept is nothing new, but it has been neglected during the age of specialization.
Polymaths include the great thinkers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment who excelled at several fields in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and the arts. In the Italian Renaissance, the idea of the polymath was expressed by Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) in the statement that “a man can do all things if he will”.
The term “renaissance man” came into play in the twentieth century, referring to to these versatile thinkers, learners, and makers. It was often applied to people who did odd jobs while making art on the side. For the most part, being a renaissance man (or woman) was not considered a viable profession for most of the twentieth century.
Luckily for me, right around the time I started working in 1990 it was becoming more viable. As technology and the internet disrupted and rapidly changed the world of work, there was a growing need for people who are adaptable and can be good at many different things. Technology is still changing rapidly. Specialized jobs are still disappearing and becoming more automated. Even neurosurgeons could be replaced by more precise robots at some point — probably with fewer lawsuits.
So I say: let’s celebrate the generalist. When you ask someone what they do and their answer is vague, rather than thinking they have a “bullshit job,” consider that maybe they are on exactly the right path.