Have you ever had trouble deciding which topic to read about next, or what to major in in college? Has anyone ever told you that you have too many hobbies? Have you ever thought about leaving a perfectly good job to look for something else that might interest you more — even if it doesn’t pay more? Maybe you’re a generalist.
William Tozier proposes the notion that we’re all evolved to be generalists, that specialization isn’t normal. I tend to agree when I consider that many of our forbears were more general in their skills and knowledge than we are. Even today, skills tend to be more generalized in humans living closer to nature, and survival in a wilderness requires a lot of flexibility.
When I think about it, the only things our earliest ancestors planned was to survive, and they were never sure how they would have to do that. The only things they finished were a good meal when food was available, or a new tool or garment when an old one wore out — often taking time to add improvements or embellishments, so even they were never finished. They paused to take in their world and observe it. They learned from everything around them. They were creative, they were nomads, and they were students of life. They paid attention to what came their way, they took them as signs of what they needed to do, for now.
William Tozier discusses the problem of explaining to specialists what we generalists do, how to label ourselves in today’s world. It can be a problem, and I think this must be why, long ago, I started to think of myself as a writer. Aside from having an aptitude for English and composition, a writer has to read and learn about many things in order to do what she does. Writing provides an excuse to research anything and everything, as possibly relevant to a project. Later still I began referring to myself as a creative person, because that can involve lots of different interests too, even more than writing. It can encompass activities that are finished when they’re finished, or never finished, rather than finished to deadlines. Of course writers have deadlines, if they hope to make money at it, and there the generalist has to adapt to the specialized modern world.
I conformed to the specialized world for years, in being a reliable employee and meeting deadlines. I glued myself to my chair and focused on my job. I met deadlines, and earned awards and promotions for my conformity and work ethic. But I wasn’t happy. I didn’t even feel healthy doing that. Eventually it became habit, and I got so I felt uneasy if I didn’t have a plan. So then I was really stuck — uneasy with my schedule and commitments, and uneasy when I didn’t have any.
After a lifetime of thinking I wasn’t doing life right, that I needed to be more energetic, and get more done, finish more things, I feel relief and satisfaction to realize that I’m a generalist and always have been — and there’s nothing wrong with that. It explains so much. Some people may think of being a generalist as a bad thing and call us dilettantes, or unwilling to commit, and some may even think it’s a sign of a problem, one of those recently defined mental disorders for which there always conveniently seems to be a new drug. (When did we start inventing diseases to match the drugs instead of the other way around?) Heaven forbid any of us should be anything but cookie cutter normal, whatever that means. In our culture it apparently means we have to specialize in something, we have to plan everything out, have goals and deadlines, in order to succeed. We have to finish long lists of things, and fill every minute with structured activity.
Today we don’t just have a work ethic, we have a work ethic on steroids.
I for one am ready to stop the madness. If we were intended to plan everything out, then why do we need artificial planners like Daytimers, Palm Pilots, and Blackberries? If we’re supposed to have jam-packed calendars and meetings overlapping meetings, then why didn’t we evolve to keep our schedules in our heads, and to be in two places at once? If we were supposed to travel the same road everyday, then why do we love vacations so much?
Unfortunately, being generalists brings some of us less material success in life, since it’s much less likely that we decide on distinct, well-defined career paths, and even if we do, we get this itch to change careers now and then. We’re looked down on when we tend not to finish things to a schedule — and I agree that makes sense when others are depending on us to finish so they can do their things. We’re often better off working on our own, to our own schedules, which are pretty much nonexistent, and without anyone else depending on us conforming to a schedule. Sometimes we’re called Jacks of all Trades.
Provided you figure out eventually that this is how you’re supposed to be, that there’s nothing wrong with you for wanting less structure and commitment in your life, being a generalist can bring a great deal of freedom and happiness. After all, what makes you happier than being yourself, no matter how many directions that may lead you?
I’m a generalist, and have been all my life. I’m grateful to finally figure this out. Thanks, William and Dave.