In Defense of Generalism

Why you should try to learn as many different things as you can

By MARTIN REZNY

Here’s a notion so out of sync with today’s world that you probably only know it by a name that’s a throwback to a time several historical epochs ago — the renaissance man. The current ideal is the specialist, someone who, as Oscar Wilde famously said, knows so much about so little, that he is close to knowing everything about nothing. Here’s my case for mind expansion.

The Always of Great Geniuses

First, I’d like to dispel the notion that we somehow can’t do it anymore. The generalism as a simultaneous mastery of multiple disciplines that at first glance have very little in common is not related to a historical period, the renaissance, by accident. There’s this idea, floating around ever since the medieval times, that the ancients were somehow greater than us, giant even.

It’s an understandable thing to believe in a time when most of the science of the previous era had been forgotten and lost with lots of tantalizing ruins and relics left all over the place. But we now know enough about history and human race to see clearly that all the humans before us were essentially the same biologically and mentally and that knowledge can be rediscovered.

A generation of individuals capable of doing great science, art, and philosophy alike was undoubtedly a result of a particular kind of education and way of life, which are not mysterious to us, just largely prevented from taking place. If you think that’s not the case, then try to demand to study S.T.E.M. and humanities classes together equally at a single institution.

In most cases, you’d be forced to choose one or the other, and long before university level, you’d scarcely have any choice at any mainstream school to truly pursue what you’d like to pursue, especially if it were to include many so-called “non-academic” disciplines. Personally, in order to learn poetry, debate, English, acting, and composition, I had to ignore school.

The act of learning of anything was simple, too — attempting to do the thing that you’d like to be able to do until you’re in fact able to do it. Maybe another problem with today’s education is the focus on instruction rather than practice, and that’s again something that can be easily fixed. Barring extreme cases, it’s likely that most of us can become like Leonardo if we let ourselves.

An Ace of All Trades

Another demonstrably false notion is the idea that knowing more different things necessarily means that one’s somehow lesser at any of them than specialists in each of the respective fields. Ignoring utterly the fact that Leonardo was simultaneously the best scientist of his day in multiple fields, some of which he essentially invented, and a supreme artist and engineer.

Part of the confusion here I think comes from mistaking generalism with multitasking. A generalist doesn’t have to be splitting his focus between multiple tasks at once, and there’s only so many hours a day you can spend focusing on a single thing before the returns start to diminish. Precisely if the different skills of a generalist are very diverse, they can be easily combined.

If you are a theorist, at some point it would do you good both physically and mentally to switch to a manual activity, such as painting or engineering, or if you encounter a writer’s block, maybe some research will give you needed inspiration, or doing some sport will relax your mind to overcome it. You always do one thing at a time in full focus, and give 10 000 hours to each.

During my extended high school years, I have not only gone through the conventional academic education just fine, but I have simultaneously mastered English by playing with the computer, spent a decade doing theater and rhetorical competitions, wrote poetry and composed music the whole time, and were in a soccer team. I still felt like I had too much free time left.

After I started defeating specialists in some of these fields in national or international competitions, I realized that my generalism is not holding me back, but giving me an edge. My competitors typically had something to say, or knew how to say it well, but rarely were able to do both, and I always seemed to have more answers to any single problem. It wasn’t about talent.

The Source of Original Thought and Creativity

Another feeling that many of us have today is that there’s nothing original anymore, that somehow everything has already been thought of. At a time of the fastest evolving technology in the history of the world. Being original is rather easy, actually, it’s simply the act of connecting ideas that were previously unconnected, or at least not connected in a similar way before.

Guess who is greatly equipped for the connecting of things. Yes, a generalist. If you are a scientist who’s also a painter, maybe it will be you to whom it is obvious to draw precisely how for instance human or animal anatomy look. If you’re also an engineer, maybe it will be you who’ll be the first one to think, while drawing bird wings, that humans maybe could fly as well.

Specialists are very good at advancing knowledge in the paradigm that they’re familiar with, like developing a particular moneymaking scheme to make even more money, but you need a generalist to come up with an entirely new way of solving a particular problem, or to notice an entirely new problem. Like Steve Jobs, who studied humanities, seeing that computers can look cool.

To a complete computer specialist, this entire dimension of the technology would not even occur, because of his total focus on software’s and hardware’s sheer functionality. Which is fine, but there’s nothing to lose by also having generalists, and being one is by itself not incompatible with also reaching ultimate mastery in any number of fields. And don’t forget it enriches you.

Any narrowing of your mind only serves to limit your personal growth and prevent you from realizing some of your potential. If anybody gains from you being forced to become a specialist, it’s certainly not you. If you feel like the system is not letting you, remember that you don’t need it, and that nobody in education knows what will help you succeed in life by the time you graduate.

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