“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.
Specialization is for insects.”
– Robert A Heinlein
Well, I’m sure Heinlein was just being facetious for effect, in the ‘…for insects‘ jab at the end of that famous quote. Specialists have a pretty awesome arsenal for tackling different sorts of problems. All the same: should we be actively seeking to nurture generalists? It is, after all, our core nature to be multi-faceted and variously abled. Specialisation gives rise to rigour, depth of knowledge and efficiency, but the celebration of those attributes in several spheres of modern life, to the exclusion of other modes of knowing and being, might be unhealthy for those with a generalist bent.
I have resisted posting this for a long time since I presented it in person, mostly because it sounds rather pompous (but then I thought what the hey – anything titled ‘manifesto’ should prolly be allowed to sound a little full of itself!)… and also because it espouses a philosophy which, strictly speaking, isn’t just about nurturing generalists. It really could apply to all types of people pursuing any kind of endeavor. So with all those caveats out of the way, I give you:
THE GENERALIST MANIFESTO
1. We must recognize that there are phases to the generalist mode of being:
- The dabbler – (plays and makes playful attempts, is unattached to the outcomes due to low investment). This is the ‘suck it and see’ phase, where the dabbler decides that something looks interesting and goes after it… much like a cat goes after a ball of string. But each such foray is also a reconnaissance mission: the dabbler spends only what time is necessary to discover if they have any talents in this field, and to quickly assess what sorts of further investments in time, materials, energy, money etc it will take to properly engage in activities in this field.
- The generalist – (tests, measures, makes serious attempts, incorporates learning and feedback). The generalist has activities/interests in several fields; their creations or contributions are often amateur but sometimes polished. The name I’ve given this ‘middling’ phase is also (confusingly enough) the name I use for the entire trajectory / all stages. At this stage the generalist should also be cultivating their abilities for synthesis, to look for patterns that recur across different domains. To be able to recognize such patterns is sufficient at this stage.
- The polymath – (studies in depth – yes, specializes!!) – in one field of inquiry or active pursuit after another; does original research or produces original works of a professional calibre, in several disciplines. More importantly, a polymath is able to link insights from various domains and bring them to bear on a particular piece of research, problem, or initiative in order to achieve a breakthrough.
As generalists, we should know where we are on this pseudo-scale. It makes us more ready to communicate and more ready to head off misconceptions/preconceptions that others may have about the generalist ethos, or about our ability to contribute to others’ efforts.
2. We must remove the stigma attached to ‘dabbling’. Dabbling is the infantile stage for developing a generalist skillset. And let us not forget, it is also a pre-requisite, surprise surprise, for developing a specialist skillset… The only difference might be that generalists are free to flit from one activity to another at incredible speed. It makes them seem fickle. We must reserve the right to dabble – it is time spent discovering what you like and don’t like, what you have some ability for and what you should leave well the heck alone. The insights gleaned from dabbling are also necessary inputs in the overall planning and strategy that each generalist needs to unfurl their particular trajectory (see point 12). Without dabbling, there would be no basis for generalist knowing or decision-making.
3. We must remove the guilt associated with significant investments of time and money. In the middle stage of our trajectory, when we have moved beyond dabbling toward concerted efforts in several directions, we will need time and money for experimenting, testing and measuring, incorporating feedback, learning the lingo and skills needed in a particular field and becoming ensconced in its related communities. Often these pursuits are seen as being rather pointless, or an actual waste of resources (remember that unlike the dabbler, a generalist actually spends considerable resources on their interests / fields of independent inquiry).
It is in this stage that the generalist can most reasonably be taunted with the phrase “Jack of all trades and master of none”. For once, the saying will be apt. Regardless: in order to hone that swiss-army-knife of talents, we must be prepared to make the necessary investments to school ourselves and follow our myriad passions. Generalists should not encumber themselves with guilt about the investments in time and money and thoughts of whether it would all be better spent elsewhere. Obviously you should live within you means, but all generalists should cultivate a list of activities that they are allowed to spend time, money and energy on, no questions asked.
4. We must preserve the esteem associated with the term ‘polymath’. A true polymath should genuinely be a Master, not a ‘Jack’, of several trades, in my as far as I’m aware completely un-sought opinion. A polymath should be someone who has dabbled to discover what interests them, made the necessary investments in generalist pursuits to gain working knowledge in several fields, and then proceeded to do what society erroneously believes is unthinkable for the generalist: to specialize in each of their domains of interest, in turn (or perhaps even in parallel). We must remove this myth that generalists must remain incapable of specialising, and vice versa. Since generalists will do anything, it follows that specialising is just one of the many things they can do. It is through such variegated specialising that the generalist becomes a true polymath. A professional in SEVERAL domains. I think it might help the generalist cause to reserve the word polymath for such individuals.
5. We need institutions that support the generalist ethos: Some random ideas for structures or processes that might help generalists:
(i) Cohorting: Academia puts cohorting to good use: everyone in a class enters a course together, they progress through the years together and graduate together. This is an unparalleled opportunity to connect with like minds and re-inforce each others motivations to learn, experiment and grow. Unfortunately, academia has been far from cross-disciplinary. But we can replicate its cohorting system by bringing people with shared interests together. An ability to share resources or invest time, space, energy in the pursuits of kindred endeavors would help more people make progress. Therefore, any service, application, institution or space in which people can grow their skills/abilities together should be sought by generalists, for each of their domains of interest.
(ii) New types of jobs, roles and careers. We should be actively engaged in designing the cross-disciplinary roles we wish to take in society and then creating a job economy for such roles. First we should employ ourselves in that role, however fantastic it may look on paper or on a CV or on a business card, until the world understands at a memetic level that we, the brave new crop of Quantum Cat-Herders have arrived on the scene, and demand to get paid for doing precisely that. Without this economic basis there will be no ecosystem of cross-disciplinary, multi-faceted work-styles for those who need it, and we will never have the financial wherewithal to lend a philanthropic hand to our own cause. Generalists: HR workers, interviewers and employers are generally not to be entrusted so completely with your talents or your wellbeing. You must reserve some portion of such things for your own care and direction.
(iii) Commissioned works and alternative funding. We could reclaim the ability to commission works from large institutions such as the government, academia and corporate entities. It would allow people to bypass constraining institutions to get needed equipment, space, computers, art materials, lab apparatus and who knows what else, to immerse themselves in a project they are actually passionate about and capable of. One thing that would speed up a ‘cultural return’ of sorts too, to the polymathic ethos, would be to help fund adults to continue their (academic or informal) learning during their professional / working years. The economy has been pushing the whole ‘back to school’ issue for years now, but it needs to driven more by people’s desire to learn new things rather than just the desire to remain employable.
6. We must hold effort above attainment, while still preserving standards of attainment. Whether or not we are attached to the outcome in every attempt to learn, research or perform something new, we must be fanatical about making as many attempts as possible. Fellow generalist: you should try, and you should keep trying, whenever you can. It matters not if your attempts are minutes apart or years apart… and do not make apologies for the outcomes, however amateurish they may be (only, don’t at the same time confuse this with an idea that somehow your works aren’t amateurish when they are: you should get an understanding of the breadth of what is possible, and what represents the pinnacles of achievement thus far in your new discipline). The point is that engaging in the activities of a particular field of interest should be the most important thing. Put in the effort, and it’s okay to make mistakes.
7. You must take back your time. Make sure you know how many hours in the day, contractually or morally, belongs to those making demands upon your time, and then give over precisely that much time and not too much more. Without the infrastructure afforded to specialists, all that a generalist has is their time and you must beg, borrow or steal it back from whomever or whatever seeks to take more than they deserve from you. With this time you have the opportunity then to hone your many myriad interests or ventures until they provide for you the personal sense of satisfaction that you want from them, or until they can be made useful for the rest of society.
8. We must be activists for all modes of working and being. There must be equality between specialists and generalists, and there must be the right to cycle endlessly between the two extremes. Yes, we all cycle between the two extremes. It’s just that the manner of our cycling varies from person to person. So it’s not enough to just fight for our right to be generalists. Specialists have the right to be specialists… to pick one thing to focus on and not be bothered with other skillsets/behaviours that they have no desire to adopt. Not every situation/environment can accomodate a particular mode of learning/working/being – but being able to openly communicate your ‘leanings’ as it were, would be a progressive thing indeed.
9. We must continue to respect the depth of domain-specific knowledge afforded by the ‘specialist’ mode, in any domain. When someone has spent 6 years on a doctorate you should probably defer to them on topics concerning their specialty. The point is not to equate rigour with fluff. The biggest fear that our specialist-oriented world has of generalists is that we would replace every instance of rigour with the informational equivalent of candy floss. Being a generalist or a polymath does not mean forsaking rigour, but rather embracing it at a depth that is situation-appropriate, and in as many domains as possible.
10. Support other generalists. Equip young people, who are often generalists at heart until co-opted by the twin powers of business and academia, with tools for life that encourage experimentation, and decision-making around what new fields of inquiry would be useful to adopt next. Encourage others who have expressed a wish to try something new to do so, even if they will complain that they are too old, or have no time, or are ‘past it’ in some other sense. Last but not least, never assume that other people have only one string to their bow. You might be surprised about other people’s pursuits, or interests, if you will only ask them… or share your own… or invite them along to something you were pretty sure they wouldn’t be up for. They might just say, ‘Yes – count me in!’
11. We should remember that the generalist ethos isn’t quite the same thing as the creative ethos. It’s easy to conflate the two things, but they are not the same thing. It’s important that a generalist understands this difference, otherwise you will be dragged into all kinds of ancillary arguments, without knowing it. Creativity is it’s own juggernaut of a topic, and it isn’t really what this manifesto is about, though yes – it’s easy to imagine lots of tenuous links between the two. The generalist ethos is simply about the multiplicity of pursuits, none of which have to be creative, innovative or even artistic in expression.
12. We must define, and stay on top of, our own generalist strategy. Since you cannot in fact pursue everything, you must decide if you are the sort of generalist who is going to attempt precisely that, and see how many things you can attempt before you shuffle off the mortal coil, or whether you’re going to have different sorts of generalist goals aligned with family, career, social life (to give a few examples). A generalist needs to decided whether short-term goals suit them better or whether long-termed goals spanning years or decades work better for their generalist pursuits. You should also know whether you are content at the dabbler and generalist stages, or whether you will pursue a more polymathic outcome for some of your pursuits. You should have some sense of how you’d like your path to unfold. Or, if you abhor paths, you should be self-aware enough to know this too, and proceed accordingly.
And that’s all she wrote on the matter, folks. Although, wait a moment: you will notice that I have said nothing about what it is actually like, to live as a generalist. Suffice it to say that, statistically, you can expect to not garner too much in the way of success or status, until maybe/possibly late in life. Several people can be found who are exceptions to the rule, of course, and good luck being one of them. Maybe The Manifesto might help in that regard, or provide some ideas. If you really need status/success/wealth that badly, then you might have to specialize early and deeply in life until you’ve gotten your just desserts, and then return to a polymathic modus. Not many generalists can subjugate themselves that well for that long though, and my Manifesto is mostly for people who are already accustomed to the realities of being a generalist and who want to be the best generalists they can possibly be.