#17: Making the case to be a generalist

Generalists vs. Specialists

School teaches us to think like specialists. You are probably already familiar with the specialist mental model for problem solving:

  • make a list of all anticipated tasks

  • complete the first task

  • complete the second task

  • continue to complete all tasks until there are none left

The specialist approach makes it seem as if problem solving is linear, as if completing one task will unlock another task, and just like a game, you keep leveling up until you’ve won. 

Specialists are all around us, from plumbers to physicists. Specialists have a plan and a narrow focus. They follow check-lists and equations and look to others in their discipline who have solved similar problems. 

Generalists are not as easy to come across, but they tend to aggregate in pockets. Unlike specialists, generalists don’t work linearly through tasks. They tend to have lots of uncompleted tasks, some of which take months to complete, and others never get completed. To a specialist, the generalist approach seems chaotic.

Where are all the generalists?

Generalists tend to be innovators and inventors. 

Unfortunately, our society values specialists, experts, over generalists, inventors. We pay specialists more money and we label generalists as unfocused. Generalists get praise and accolades only when they make a breakthrough discovery. 

On the one hand, this incentive structure is understandable, but, on the other hand, it is outdated. The incentive structure was created during the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, and it worked well for collective needs at that time. During the Industrial Revolution, we needed to train children to work in factories, and mass education, that taught specialization at scale, worked well. Children became productive factory workers.

So, you want to be a generalist? 

Generalists are always seeking knowledge from diverse disciplines. Their curiosity helps them to make connections and see patterns that others would not see. 

If you want to become a generalist, you need to start building knowledge from different disciplines. You can start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What are three subjects that I have always wanted to learn more about?

  • What are a few books on those subjects that I can start reading today?

  • Do I have a notebook (physical or digital) to take notes on those books?

  • Do I know 1 person who is also interested in these subjects?

The generalist path can be very fun and rewarding, but it is usually trackless. There may be some markers, but the path is vastly unknown. You will need to get comfortable being uncomfortable.

Personally, I think the path of a generalist is well worth it. If you want to learn more about what’s to come on the generalist path, I suggest reading the sailboat metaphor.

Take care of yourselves, and have fun!

❤️ Thanks to my Foster editors Bennett Green, Jesse Germinario, Dani Trusca, Joel Christiansen, Jordan Jones, and Dan Hunt