What is a generalist?
Being a generalist; the good and the bad
If you’re living in a first world country, chances are that you are surrounded by people who are really good at something or are working towards become really good at a certain subject. They are called Specialists. On the other hand, there is a much smaller group of people that has different interests and tries to specialize in various topics. These people are called Generalists. I have to confess that I am not completely comfortable with pigeonholing people into groups. Therefor I’ll state that the Generalist – Specialist is usually more of a spectrum than a binary. There nearly aren’t any people who live for one craft alone or who collect information about 10.000 subjects. But a lot of people tend to lean closer to the Generalist’s – or to the Specialist’s side. For reasons of clarity, this article will sketch hypothential situations and at times exaggerate the dichotomy between Generalists and Specialists (and “Generalist” and “Specialist” are written with capital letters, while that is not common practice).
One of the reasons that our society is as advanced as it is, is the tendency of people to specialize in a subject. Their knowledge about the subject increases every day, because Specialists are working on the subject of their liking every day.
Physicits will be theorizing and experimenting, surgeons will operating their patients and pianists will be learning about music theory and practice their fine motor skills. By doing these things day in, day out, their craft improves. Or take for example people who are members of -and specialized in- a certain subculture. The knowledge they gain about their style of dress, music to listen and “culture appropriate” interests refines their subculture. We see that Specialists have the ability to generate progress in a certain field, whether it’s the sciences, or a cultural subject. Seeing the advantages of Specialists and their contribution to society, what do we need Generalists for then exactly?
Good stuff about the Generalist
On the internet, there is a lot to be found about what generalists are allready. I see different definitions. The standard Google definition of the Generalist is:
But on other websites, I come across a different meaning, namely that Generalists are “Jack of all trades, master of none”. This implies that the generalist can’t do anything right. I think this definition is a bit derogatory and doesn’t seem to take generalists seriously (see Jack the Jester).
So, it’s fair to say that I lean more towards the first definition; that a Generalist is someone that is being a specialist in different subjects than being this “master of none” kind of person.
Perhaps not every Generalist will gain the same level of knowledge that a specialist has in a field (But some of them will definately do!). However, there is a chance that a Generalist will gain unique knowledge about a subject and see similar principles and rules come to the surface in different fields, making his or her knowledge invaluable.
I think that a Generalist will bring unique knowledge of the table. I don’t know if this is true for every generalist, but I think that sometimes generalists can develop some kind of “bird’s eye view” of the world. Up in the sky, they can see the limits and shortcomings of the various fields they are interested in.
Foundation and principles
Example: Law and Japanese
On the other hand, Generalists are usually able to see the foundation of a field and they are often able to see certain principles resurface in various discipines. I, for example, am interested and specialized in law and Japanese. I see similarities in the Japanese language and in (Dutch) law. Both Japanese and the science of law have quite a strong framework that is dynamic at the same time. There are certain rules in both disciplines which you must follow, or you will be penalized. For example, the penalty of not following the rules in law is that you will be getting a sentence or a fine. The penalty in not abiding the syntax of a language is that some people won’t take you seriously or they won’t understand you. However, there is a dynamic streak going on in both fields. Laws will keep on changing. Based on what the government does, on what the parliament decides and on the verdicts of judges, laws and juridsprudence will change. The laws of 2010 are different than the laws of 2015. And language is also a dynamic phenomenon. New proverbs will become part of spoken language, old words will be forgotten, words from other languages will be adopted and new advances in technology will lead to entirely new words. In summary, both fields know strict rules, that always change over time. Seeing similarities between fields will safe time understanding yet another new field of knowledge.
Figuratively speaking, some Generalists can be seen as a reversed prism. They take in a lot of colourful ideas and they beam out one ground rule. They can be seen as a normal glass prism as well. The unshattered light beam can be seen as a generalists and the rainbow beams that come out of the prism are like the various interests and specialties of the individual.
Out of the box thinking
By having knowledge of various disciplines, the possibilities are endless. Generalists are the ultimate “out of the box”-thinkers. Because of their knowledge of different fields, generalists can be a creative bunch and find solutions for certain problems. I can imagine a historian who is also a jurist being able to see the implication of the phrasing of certain laws that are being created in parliament. Or an engineer / surf dude could in his spare time create the ultimate indoor surfing experience.
To me, Leonardo DaVinci is definately a role model. He was a painter, a scientist, a botanist and a sculptor among others. Combining his talent for painting with his research on the human body resulted in beautiful paintings and sculptors that we can still enjoy today.
We need both
In summary, I think we need both specialists and generalists in society and we should appreciate both. Specialists are going in a certain direction with their field of knowledge. They improve the field by refining their craft/ their knowledge. On the other hand, we need generalists too, because with their unique insights, they prevent tunnel vision and discover new directions to follow and new paradygms to build upon.
Tending to the “Generalist” side myself, I have written blogs about various subjects. Click here if you want to read a blog post about my band. And click here if you want to read about an article about 10 things that you really have to experience in Seoul, South Korea.