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May 4, 2017

In Defense of Learning and Doing Lots of Stuff as a Generalist

Conventional wisdom recommends finding a specialty and sticking with it. Maybe you and conventional wisdom have had your issues in the past. Part of the reason I switched majors twice in college – and once afterward – is that my interests always threaten to burst from whichever box I choose, just as your musical restraints cannot ever hope to contain Tay Zonday. I am much more comfortable being a generalist.

Generalists are intrigued by the whole world and love learning for its own sake. They are deeply curious and analytical. They have diverse interests, knowledge, and experience. They try to glean universal principles from minutiae and enjoy connecting seemingly unrelated fields of study.

There are certainly disadvantages to being a generalist as opposed to a specialist. Unless a degree accompanies each branch of knowledge, the generalist has to work harder to prove oneself competent and credible than the specialist does. That’s simply the world in which we live – for now. It seems that the environment is changing to be more forgiving to generalists.

The Long and Winding Road

I entered my four-year college as a communications major, having had a great writing teacher in my senior year of high school. However, I only settled for that major because I believed I couldn’t cut it on the piano. Music was my first love, but I figured I needed better piano skills than I had in order to major in music.

I was happily surprised to find that my piano playing improved drastically during one semester’s worth of lessons, so I eagerly switched my major to Music Education. It went fairly well until I began my observation hours. Aspiring teachers have to spend a requisite many hours watching other teachers, and I disliked this use of my time. (Little did I know how much I would love being the person in front of the class.) I switched tracks to Sacred Music.

Upon graduation, I hated my life. I worked at Olive Garden as a busboy and server. To punctuate the tedium of late nights, late sleeps, and another shift, I would buy and consume entire pints of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough. One day I had such pain in my lower back that I thought I must have shut my kidneys down with dairy. It was almost rock bottom for me.

I went back to school to resume my studies in Music Education and finished within a year.

Little Detours

I haven’t mentioned above that nestled within my first phase of college was my encounter with Quixtar, a multi-level marketing company, which planted entrepreneurial ideas in my mind. So far I had amassed interests in Christianity, music, teaching, and business ownership and innovation.

Of course, after college I learned to hate the debt I’d accrued. Eventually I took a course in personal finance, which made me passionate about helping others to avoid financial enslavement.

Oh – and somewhere in there I gained a ton of experiential knowledge about depression, mental health, and the bollocksed-up world of psychiatric guesswork. I could practically make a career out of anti-pharmaceutical activism.

The list of my dabblings continues to grow. Every day brings new ideas and resurgent passions, and that pesky conventional wisdom insists that there is no way to make use of everything. I don’t believe that, because as far as I can see, we live in the best possible time to be a generalist.

Once an Alien, Now a Native

Generalists are particularly suited to our information-based economy because they are avid collectors of new concepts. They also seem to put a premium on communication since it is the syringe through which they obtain their knowledge fix. Add a pinch of creativity to that concoction, and the generalist is the person you want on your team whether you have a startup, small business, or a publicly traded corporation.

Generalists are also ready for the changes on the horizon for the field of education itself. They already like to learn things independently. They only lightly esteem credentials, recognizing that ideas stand or fall on their own merit. Bill Nye can hold degrees and be an accomplished inventor and simplify many scientific ideas for the average person, but if he tries to spread laughable ideas, they will be rejected. Don’t misunderstand me. We still need skilled experts in fields such as medicine and law. Academic achievement is nothing to ridicule or belittle, but it must be paired with sound ideas, the powerful currency of our age.

With the definition of “work” morphing, new avenues are opening for generalists. The gig and freelance economy continues to expand, which makes having multiple skills more useful than ever. Not only that, but you can now learn almost anything on your own for free. If you mashup your skills into valuable combinations, you can find or create even opportunities for yourself. Here are some examples:

  • I’m writing marketing copy for a non-profit in the form of an ebook that will serve as a lead magnet (you know – the free resource that sites offer in exchange for your email). This combines my communication skills with my Bible knowledge and the ability to condense information and teach it.
  • I’m working on a rhyming story to teach children that success comes through serving others well. Since I can’t draw, I might first release it as a song. This project combines my passion for business principles with the songwriting chops I’ve honed since studying music in college. I’m excited to see how this develops.
  • As I mentioned in the previous post, I have been running errands for a well-known musician. Even during this brief stint, I’ve identified critical components of this job (some of which I’ve learned through error) and plan to write a niche book to help others assist touring bands. The guidance would easily transfer to other service industries – restaurants, hotels, property management, you name it. We’ll see how that book fares.

No Confines

Once again, I recommend cataloguing your natural talents, skills, and interests so that you can see them. It feels incredible, and it will help you imagine the possibilities. If you’re a fellow generalist, making this list is a necessity.

If you’re skeptical, step back and consider that even the most engaging college graduates or doctors you consider friends possess interests beyond their primary field of study. Otherwise, they would bore you. My brother-in-law is a teacher who will soon have two graduate degrees, but he also acts, enjoys naughty video games, and has discovered and developed an impressive talent for painting.

We diversify our knowledge, or we stand still while the world leaves us behind. Learn stuff. Do stuff. Being – or becoming – a generalist is more practical than ever.

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