Generalist or Specialist

I’ve always considered myself a generalist, a person with a wide range of interests who stops in at the entrance to a subject, peeks inside, notes the inhabitants, and moves on. At our last lunch together, MDM recommended I Could Do Anything: If I Only Knew What It Was. Reading Chapter 6, in which Barbara Sher discusses scanners (generalists) and divers (specialists, made me wonder if I’m really a specialist after all. She describes the case of the odd diver who behaves like a scanner–a specialist who is afraid of committing to a specialization.

I do enjoy learning everything I can about a subject. When I worked at the IRS, I knew the IRC like no one else in my unit. I knew what page in Pub 17 you could find the list of the 8 community property states. I knew the obscure code for entering a foreign address. And I loved summarizing my knowledge and sharing it with others. Those are the traits that got me into documentation and training.

When I study Japanese, I look up words in four or five books. I look up the English to Japanese and then I look up the Japanese to English. I look up the Japanese meaning in a Japanese dictionary. I look up the kanji and the etymology. I compare the word to similar words and I contrast it in books on usage. No wonder it takes me so long to learn one word!

When I began gardening, I read everything I could. I loved to open three books at once and compare their descriptions of the same plant.

On reflection, I think I always thought of myself as a generalist, because I always feel like a beginner. Although I like being an expert in whatever I’m doing, I don’t like being the expert. I prefer to surround myself with people who know more than I. Also once I feel I’ve mastered something, I get bored with it. I’ve had jobs that made other people wonder how I could stick with them for so long. But as long as there was something new to learn, I could sustain my interest.

I’ve answered my own question: I’m a specialist. I’ve not committed to a specialty, not because I’m afraid of commitment, but because I have to choose subjects that aren’t easily mastered (like Japanese!) or my attention wanders.

Another reason I have always believed I was a generalist is that I’m a proponent of interdisciplinary studies. And I have chosen many jobs where I’m the bridge between two specialists, or the bridge between a specialist and a non-specialist. Because I understood only enough of these specialites to bridge them–because I was never as expert as the expert, I concluded I was a generalist.

Those of you who know me, which do you think I am? And what are you?

4 Responses to “Generalist or Specialist”

  1. mdm Responds:

    In his essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox”, Isaiah Berlin presents the specialist/generalist dicotomy through the metaphor of the hedgehog – someone with a great deal of knowledge about one thing, and the fox – someone with a little knowledge about a lot of things.

    One of the observations Berlin makes is that hedgehogs dream of being foxes and foxes dream of being hedgehogs. I, for example, am a fox, and I have always felt that I would be happiest if I could just focus on some subject and become an expert in it. That has always been beyond my reach and probably always will be.

    Hedgehogs, because of their focused effort are those who move frontiers outward. Foxes are those who make the system work. Hedgehogs are scientists; foxes are engineers. Hedgehogs are poets; foxes are journalists. Hedgehogs are astronauts; foxes build the shuttle and organize the launch.

    A basic premiss of the “I Could Be Anything…” book is in order to understand what you want to be you have to get rid of all the various false ideas about what you think you want to be. It sounds to me as though you’re making some significant progress.

    You are a hedgehog. The fact that you have felt you are not a specialist because there are those who know more about a topic than you is really evidence of hedgehoggedness. Of course there is always more to learn. That’s the fuel that makes a hedgehog go. I’m certain that Isaac Newton felt that what he didn’t understand far exceeded what he did. Albert Einstein did understand far more than Newton, but Einstein spent 40 years after publishing his relativity papers pursuing the answers to other questions.

    The fox’s operating motto is “Close enough”. This makes no sense to a hedgehog.

  2. mss Responds:

    @mdm For a few minutes, a very few minutes, I was delighted to discover I was a specialist. One by one I thought of the things in my life that I had dug into with great pleasure: Nancy Drew, Dark Shadows, quilting, the Brontes, progressive rock bands of the 70s, children’s literature, geodesic domes, the Bloomsbury Group, American pioneer life, organic gardening, folk and fairy tales, the Internal Revenue Code, my Macintosh, Japanese, the CCI Promotional Pricing System, writing software documentation, bulbs for the south, ETI*Extract, irises, weblogging, and roses–well, lots of things. And I’m interested in a lot of other things besides, but these are the things that I have been passionate about at one time or another, things I have some depth of understanding.

    I distrust dichotomies. Must it be fox or hedgehog? generalist or specialist? scanner or diver? Isn’t there a third possibility?

    As I said, I’ve often been the bridge between specialists. Another role I play is as archivist and pointer. I don’t know all the information in my repository, but I can find it when I need it. At work, I didn’t understand all the technical discussions, but I understood and remembered enough to ask probing questions that made the specialist dig deeper. But my favorite thing to do was to take two conversations I understood only superficially, discover a pattern, and get the two specialists talking to each other.

    I know about things, but I don’t know things. That’s why I thought I was a generalist. I want a third choice. I think there should be a middle view (that bridge again). What about a duck? Sometimes I fly above the surface and see the whole. Sometimes I sit on the water and get my feet wet. And sometimes I dive (not too deeply) with very satisfying results.

  3. Frangutz Responds:

    Well, hi!

    This has blown me away tonight. I have been having many of the thoughts you have described above.

    I don’t know whether I am a generalist or a specialist (1. I haven’t read the book yet; 2. I believe I am generalist, but from what you write, I must be a specialist).

    I am interested in knowing how things have changed for you after reading this book. Have you found some hidden dreams that you have never let out before?

    I am totally lost. I don’t know where to go with my life & I am trying very hard to work it all out.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. If you want to write back, feel free.

  4. Kevin Mazyck Responds:

    I came across this blog trying to find some answers to my question about summer gardening. This really wasn’t what I was looking for, it did manage to answer a few of my somewhat questions that I wasn’t able to find an answer to some time back. I’m in awe by your viewpoint.

The surface and beneath the surface