Being a Generalist in a World of Specialization

Snowflakes are pretty and all, but I like to romp about in the snowdrifts. Because, you know, I'm a generalist.

A few weeks back, I mentioned a former student who turned into a bit of a career counselor for me. He once sat me down to chat about the kinds of things I might be interested in doing in the public sector. He referred to me as a “generalist”, which I never really considered. My entire career has been in academic institutions, always in a classroom. Looking at my résumé, my work experience has me pigeon-holed into a pretty specific line of work. The conversation surprised me by contrasting how embedded in academia I’ve become with how varied my interests are and how diverse my abilities are.

How I’ve Specialized

Being a teacher is about the only way in which I’m specialized. My skill set otherwise is all over the place. I know just enough to be dangerous in a lot of different areas, and I’ve never hyper-specialized and taken a deep dive into any one microcosmically focused thing. Even my dissertation was interdisciplinary, combining perspectives to make connections, rather than to uncover details. I can do the academic-publication thing, but I don’t like how dry and generally under-read it is. I can do podcast production and audio editing, but not actual sound design. I’ve done a bit of coding, including a little bit down in the bottom-right corner of this page, but I’m a long way off from being a programmer. Heck, I’ve even dabbled in photography, and I started working on document design/layout when I was in grade school.

But the only thing I’ve done that consistently pays the bills is teach. I keep coming back to the classroom. But thanks to the pandemic, that bulwark has crumbled.

How Generalists Think

The conversation with my personal career counselor led me indirectly to pick up a copy of David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. I feel like I could use some triumph right now.

In the audiobook, I’ve heard example after example of folks who throw caution to the wind, risk nearly everything, and start a new career path, finding themselves (and true happiness) in the process. Let me get one thing clear here: The last thing I feel like doing is throwing caution to the wind and risking it all. You’re talking to the guy whose entire career has been in positions where tenure—permanent, unchanging employment—is the pinnacle achievement. Risk is not in my nature. So the prospects of this book’s recommendations scare me.

Along the way, though, the author gave a few interesting thought experiments, and my reactions were even more interesting. I ended up thinking the examples were too obvious, and that other people couldn’t possibly be fooled by these scenarios. Yet that’s exactly what Epstein claims.

Setting the Boundaries

Spoilers in this paragraph, if you care. In the first example, Epstein demonstrates how unrelated narratives can give us the mental nudges we need to make cross-disciplinary insights to solve out-of-context problems. The scenario involved a medical procedure where a ray of some kind had to be really strong to destroy an internal tumor, but at that strength it would kill all the healthy tissue on its way in. How to solve the problem? The “correct answer” is to aim multiple low-powered rays from various angles. Each individual ray will not damage healthy tissue, but when they intersect, the combined powers destroy the tumor.

To get readers to imagine the solution, Epstein told two stories of “divide and conquer” approaches to non-medical things. Each time, he checked with readers to see whether they’d figured out the trick. “Did you save the patient yet? No? Here’s another story….” It was an effective presentation of the idea. But two sentences in to his first example, I said, “Oh, you mean there can be multiple ray guns? I thought I was limited to one!” I spent the rest of the time along for the ride, waiting for him to spell out connections that instantly clicked with me. According to Epstein, something like 20–30% of people don’t figure out the scenario, even with the two hints he gave; to me the solution seemed obvious. Huh.

I’ve Heard This Before

More spoilers in this paragraph, too. The second situation was some business-class case study that’s apparently quite popular. It’s something about the decision to race a car or not because of problems they had in previous runs. The students get data about equipment failures at different temperatures, and the temperature at the race in question will be lower than any of the provided data points. I said, out loud while listening to an audiobook, “Wait. This is Challenger.”

I had to sit through a thorough and detailed explanation of the classroom discussions, the setup, and the teacher’s reveal before finally Epstein said that the scenario replicates the conditions involved the go/no-go launch decision for the final flight of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Not only did I get the “right answer” for the case study; I identified the original situation the case study resembled, long before he revealed that connection. It seemed obvious to me.

My Resolve

So now I’m a self-proclaimed generalist, feeling like I have insufficient career experience to succeed in the public, non-education sector. Yet here I am vividly demonstrating Epstein’s points about the value of broad, shallow knowledge and experience. And I’m doing it right in line with his descriptions, and arguably ahead of his schedule.

Guess I need to redesign my website again to more heavily emphasize my nature as a generalist. Or at the least, I need to see it as an uncommon strength. Perspective is fun.