A Generalist in a Specialist’s World


I do so much, and I love it all.

I spend most of my day at a computer, dreaming up creative solutions to highly technical problems. It’s satisfying work. Every day, I learn something new. Every day, I solve difficult problems. Every day, I help people get information they’re looking for more easily. There’s rarely a day when I don’t wake up excited for the day. I’m usually up early, ready to dive into the day’s challenges.

When I’m not in front of the computer, I’m behind the lens. I love wandering around Upstate NY with the camera to document my expeditions. I’m always taking the long way home, pulling over at the crest of some breathtaking knoll, running outside into a storm like a maniac to catch the perfect shot.

I love exploring. My first trip to Denver, for a web conference, I got up early and hiked several miles to catch the sunrise before the conference started, and ordered dinner to go so I could watch the sunset afterwards.

I love writing music. The best music comes to me in the midst of great sadness or longing, and the melodies come more freely than do the words.

I love drawing. I doodle a lot during church.

I love reading. When one sinks its claws into me, I devour it in one or two sittings.

I love playing video games. When I was young, I remember specifically telling myself that when I got older I’d still love playing video games. Now I play Minecraft every day with my son.

I love making things with my hands. Building a shed, pouring a candle, cooking a meal — these provide a welcome balance to my otherwise screen-centric life.

I love watching movies and television shows. There’s nothing quite like letting your thoughts and emotions be carried along for a time in the hands of a master storyteller.

I love meeting new people. I love hearing their stories, trying to understand what matters to them and motivates them, trying to

I’m doing so much, and I don’t mind it all.

But I tossed around in bed tonight, thinking about how much I miss teaching. Long ago, I taught junior and senior high school students. I disliked the never-ending task of grading papers and projects, but I found great joy in helping kids understand the world better. I enjoyed it, and people told me I was pretty good at it. After teaching at school, I went on to teach at church; and I felt the same way. Helping equip people to better face the world satisfied me deeply.

Since we moved, I don’t get to do much teaching. In fact, much of the human-to-human interaction I had where we used to live has dwindled, and I feel… bottled-up.

I stared out the window at the fields washed white by the full moon, and I thought to myself, “I really want to start teaching again.” But then: teach what? Everything?

This is the disadvantage to loving many things.

Am I the developer? Am I the designer? The marketing guru? The social networking specialist? The SEO expert? The author? The photographer? The musician? The preacher? The missionary? The father and husband? The chicken farmer?

Yes, I am all of those things — to some degree or another. It seems to me, though, that no one wants to hear from someone who is pretty good at lots of different things; they want someone who is excellent at one thing. Maybe that’s not fair to say. Many of my heroes have been “generalists”, and they’ve helped many people, including me. But that seems like the exception rather than the norm. It seems like everyone wants to hear from the person who figured out, exhaustively, the one thing they care about most, instead of the person who managed to get it all working together and find some balance.

I recently read some advice for aspiring medical students: if you’re going into the medical field, specialize in something. Specialists get to focus on one thing and do it really well. They also tend to get paid better — almost twice as much as general practitioners. General practitioners, on the other hand, are often looked down on as the doctors who deal with all the stuff that isn’t important (especially now that more people are self-diagnosing via the internet).

But as with the jack-of-all-trades, the reality is that general practitioners are critically important. No two days are the same in a general practice. They have to be ready to deal with anything from colds to cancer, heart burn to heart attacks, dialysis to depression — all while dealing with the personalities of patients who often stay with the same doctor for life. They’re the ones who have the all important task of knowing when a specialist is needed.

I feel like a GP in a world that values specialists.

I mentioned this feeling on Anchor.fm just the other day, and a perceptive listener brought up this salient point: it sounds like your comparing yourself to people that you really care about who seem like they have more focus in life. I say it’s perceptive because, in fact, I just recently heard about someone I admire being asked to speak about a topic they love, and that pang, that longing to teach again, is what prompted my restlessness the other night.

So maybe the comparison is unhealthy. Maybe I just need to embrace the fact that I’m a well-rounded individual, even if that means I don’t get sought out for my thoughts on specialized topics.

Or maybe I just need to establish clearly my purpose in life and eliminate all activities that distract from that singular purpose. Ugh. That sounds too sterile, too industrial, too machine-like, too binary. Life isn’t binary. Life is analog. Life is an organic process that snakes forward, winding and twisting like a footpath through the mountains.

I guess the reason I am the way I am is because I believe there’s wisdom to be found even in wandering. And I suppose that’s not a very efficient way to live.

Oh well. If you ever need someone to speak on nothing in particular, give me a call. I’ll just be here living a well-rounded life.

“Life is an organic process that snakes forward, winding and twisting like a footpath…”