How I Fell in Love With Being a Generalist
“So, what do you do for a living?”
I can’t begin to describe how much I used to hate people asking me that question. I’d smile and stall, internally wishing I was an accountant (or something similarly straightforward).
Truth is, the answer has never been fixed. Over the past few years, I’ve been a writer, documentary filmmaker, and co-founder of two unrelated software startups. Even within those things, I’ve worn a lot of hats.
In the interest of saving time, I’d normally settle on: “I’m something of a Jack of all trades.” It was true enough, but the term always made me self-conscious.
Jack of all trades, master of none.
The second half hits as a mocking reminder that Jack (or Jill) lags behind those who have gained mastery.
It’s a specialist’s world
There are people in life who are incredibly good at a specific thing. They have a special passion or skill, and have built a life around it.
Good for them.
My partner is a classic example. He fell in love with computers as a young child, and has been programming since he could type. He can code in 34 languages, and is now lead engineer in the AI department of a large multinational. My brother, too. He was always an arty kid, dabbling in photography and digital design. He followed those passions to university, and now focuses on hyperrealistic 3D rending at a boutique design house. Totally different worlds, but a similar story: both are people who took an initial spark of interest and built on it until they became experts in niche areas of their field — specialists.
For most of my adult life, I desperately wanted to be one of them.
Why? We live in a society that ostensibly favours specialism. As a child of 90s Britain, this was entrenched into our educational system. We started with the largest number of subjects, and slowly narrowed it down to those we were ‘best’ at. Like most people, I was studying only 3 subjects by my final year of secondary school. Those graduating qualifications were essential prerequisites for many university courses, so strongly dictated what you could and couldn’t study — and then what jobs you could realistically apply for.
The system pushed specialism — and it pushed it young. Supposedly it pays off when you enter a highly competitive job market advertising specialised positions. How do you stand out amongst an overabundance of qualified graduates? Be. More. Specialised.
Calling off the search
To make things harder, we’re also up against a deeply embedded cultural myth that everyone has a ‘calling’ — a thing that they were born to do. We must discover our calling, and then pursue it with everything we have.
This belief system severely polluted my thinking, and for years I felt really terrible about myself because I didn’t have a calling. It evaded me. I felt like I was missing a fundamental part of myself — one that other people seemed to have found so easily. What was wrong with me? Was I a passionless, boring, incapable person?
Truth is, I’ve simply never been able to find one passion or curiosity that’s stood out among all others — I’m not exceptionally gifted at any one thing, either.
I’ve always had a vast collection of interests to explore and missions to undertake — to pick one has always felt like a betrayal of the others.
So I didn’t. In all honestly, I wasted a lot of time largely doing nothing whilst I waited for ‘my calling’ to come to me. I was sure that one day, the stars would align and MyPassion™ would suddenly shift sharply into focus — and then I would work on it.
Spoiler alert: this never happened.
After a while, I supplemented waiting with experimenting. Throughout my 20s, I’ve dabbled in academia, filmmaking, marketing, journalism, programming, and entrepreneurship (plus a potpourri of things I probably can’t remember right now). I’ve gained a deep understanding of multiple topics, from cybersecurity to psychedelic medicine to property development. Am I an ‘expert’? No, but I can hold my own.
Eventually, I had to call off the search for my one passion-above-all-passions. This was a painful process at first, but once I let myself off the hook for finding this thing that probably didn’t exist, I felt a million times better. I felt free to actually be myself.
For most of us, the ‘one true calling’ is a lie. You can have many, or you can have none. Some of us discover our passions when we’re young; for others they come with time, unexpected discoveries that come with exploration. They can stick, evolve, or fade away.
It doesn’t really matter.
After some time had passed, I came to realise that having no specialism can in itself be a specialism. A multidisciplinary approach and diversity of experience are their own strengths.
I generally dislike the idea of putting people into boxes, but maybe there is one for me if I need it: generalist.
“Someone who has a range of skills and knowledge” — Cambridge Dictionary
Now that I’ve shed the shame of not being a specialist, I can see the benefits of trading depth for breadth. Maybe I haven’t progressed as far in a certain career path as some of my more specialised friends, but I’ve collected a more diverse collection of opportunities, skillsets, approaches, and learnings.
And maybe the way to stand out in a saturated job market is actually to be more generalised. For pretty much any company, we make excellent employees.
- We can easily pick up new skills on the fly
- We can quickly synthesise information, and gain a good understanding of a new topic or industry
- We can speak to a variety of specialists in their own language, and easily move between teams with different functions
- We’re more self-reliant, and less likely to pass the buck to a colleague if we encounter something that’s not part of our specified role
- We can think about things from a variety of perspectives, and can flexibly apply our breadth of knowledge and experience to new situations
- We’re not limited by one paradigm, system, or process — we’re experts in how to match and devise strategies, not just follow a protocol
If there was ever a time for generalists, it’s probably now. The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered our world, and the ways we approach most areas of life. As we move to rebuild, there is a real need for people who can bring together multiple disciplines to design new systems for a new society.
It’s also worth knowing that generalism and specialism aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, David Epstein’s excellent book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, reveals that many of the world’s great specialists (in sport, art, science, etc.) reach success in their fields after first dabbling in other endeavours.
“Eventual elites typically devote less time early on to deliberate practice in the activity in which they will eventually become experts. Instead, they undergo what researchers call a ‘sampling period.’ They play a variety of sports, usually in an unstructured or lightly structured environment; they gain a range of physical proficiencies from which they can draw; they learn about their own abilities and proclivities; and only later do they focus in and ramp up technical practice in one area.” — David Epstein
Range reminds us that our professional journeys are evolutionary ones.
“Our work preferences and life preferences do not stay the same, because we do not stay the same” — David Epstein
And whether you end up a specialist or a generalist — or something in between — you don’t need to have it all worked out from day one.
Obviously, there is a place in the world for specialists. You’d probably want your heart surgeon or aircraft safety engineer to be a specialist. But in a world that often preaches hyperspecialisation, we need to remember that there’s an important place for generalists too.
Not being limited to one specialism has been a huge boost to my entrepreneurial journey, where I juggle everything from marketing and branding to fundraising and legal contracts. I think it’s also made me a much better writer and filmmaker — if nothing else, I have more stories to tell.
Most of us don’t know that the full quote is often as follows:
Jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than master of one