musings, thoughts, and writings of Barbara W. Klaser

March 15, 2008

Specialist or generalist

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.

This past Saturday, Dave Pollard at How To Save the World linked to an essay in his Links of the Week that he described as brilliant and liberating, and I agree.

The essay, by Bill Tozier of Vaguery, is titled, There are exactly two ways: one, and many. The two ways he discusses are specialization and generalization.

Bill 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.

Bill 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, Bill and Dave.

Edit 08-22-2022 Links have been updated where possible.

— Barbara @ rudimentary 12:22 pm PST, 03/15/08

April 10, 2006

Extrovert or introvert?

Eric Mayer’s post on Serious Business made me think about how we’re perceived or misperceived by others, when we blog or when we’re face to face. The tangent I take on this has to do with introverts and extroverts. I don’t presume to know which Eric is. His post made me think about this because I’m an introvert, and I picked up a book again just yesterday on this topic.

Introverts tend not to be as outwardly expressive, or to let others deep into our worlds as readily as extroverts. We’re not bubbly, cheery people for the most part. We tend to ponder. We enjoy time alone and many of us don’t like noise or interruptions. Introversion is a natural personality trait, and though introverts are probably in the minority, there’s nothing wrong with being so. We don’t dislike people, but people are sometimes difficult for us to be with. I think this has a lot to do with energy exchange and personal boundaries. It doesn’t mean anyone’s done anything wrong. It usually means we have different styles of interacting. Different people respect varying personal thresholds.

Is either an introvert or an extrovert better than the other? Of course not, and a world of all one or the other wouldn’t work for me. I see this as a yin/yang kind of thing. I hesitate even to group people into broad classifications like this. Each person is unique, a blend of many elements, but most of us lean one way or the other toward extroversion or introversion, some more so, and I think it’s the “more so” people where introversion is concerned who wind up with others trying to change them, and feeling misunderstood. (more…)

— Barbara @ rudimentary 10:30 pm PST, 04/10/06

December 31, 2005

Happy New Year 2006

This is the time of year we like to make resolutions, basically promises to ourselves about how we’ll live the year to come. For some of us it’s goals, like losing weight, spending more time with family, making more money. For some it’s measured in productivity, or in making the most of the finite amount of time we’re given each year.

I’ve had mixed success with resolutions. Some I’ve succeeded with, some have been failures. I try these days to come up with no-fail things, like getting more in touch with my true desires, what’s really important to me. That was my resolution last year. This is also the time I like to review what I’ve done over the past year. (more…)

— Barbara @ rudimentary 2:23 pm PST, 12/31/05

December 19, 2005

Merry Whatever and a Happy New Year

As someone who is neither pagan (though I have pagan leanings and wonder why no one capitalizes “pagan”), nor Christian (though I have Christian leanings), nor Jewish (though I have Jewish leanings), nor atheist (though I sometimes have atheist leanings, and I notice no one ever capitalizes that, either), I find the so-called “war on Christmas” disheartening. I’m not offended by Happy Holidays, Happy Hanukkah, Merry Yule, or Merry Christmas. The “HAPPY” and “MERRY” parts are what count.

The days are too short, the nights are cold, the traffic is terrible. If you’ve ever walked through the toy department this time of year, after the crowds have picked it over, you have a special understanding of the term “Armageddon.”

— Barbara @ rudimentary 9:15 pm PST, 12/19/05

October 25, 2005

Why continue writing fiction?

Mark Terry wrote An Open Letter to Aspiring Writers on his blog, This Writing Life. I can’t say I agree with every point he made, and there are some I don’t qualify to offer any opinion on. His post got me thinking about why we write, which I’ve explored here before, and more specifically why I continue. Especially his first point. (Read Mark’s post for his words.)

It’s probably healthiest for the aspiring writer to look at fiction writing one of two ways. 1) As an after-work side job or business that one is willing to give up on if it doesn’t pay off, or 2) as a beloved hobby to pursue in one’s spare time—after time with family, after taking care of responsibilities, and perhaps even after just goofing off. (more…)

— Barbara @ rudimentary 9:03 pm PST, 10/25/05

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