Peg wrote an interesting post on specialization in her blog yesterday, that got me to thinking. (I should preface this by saying that my post has very little to do with her post, which is all about specialization and artistry, except the title.)
I’m a generalist, and always have been. It was an major source of frustration to me for many years, as people advised me (not unreasonably) to settle down and specialize in something so I could achieve excellence (and prominence) in something rather than dabbling in lots of different things. But I’ve always had a strong attraction for the new and exciting, such that when something else new and exciting came along, I always went diving after it to explore. Some things I left behind permanently, some just for awhile – but I have never been able to focus on one thing for more than about six months at a time. Always I have several different, ever-changing, irons in the fire.
This is true for me career-wise, too. I’ve done project management for nine years, but have always striven to combine it with something else interesting – and I chose project management because it allows me to touch on many different disciplines. Some people specialize in project management in a particular industry; I’ve always found that boring. The end result is that where most of my friends have moved into management, I’m still an individual contributor. This bothered me a lot until I realized that I simply wasn’t interested in management. Safe, settled things are simply not in my nature.
On the other hand, there are advantages in generalization. I am of the firm belief that knowledge in one discipline enriches the others – sometimes only marginally, as in chocolates and textiles, sometimes closely, like dyeing and weaving. Sometimes there are other forms of cross-pollination, like my social network for weavers, which draws on software engineering to benefit weaving. Career-wise, having a diverse resume makes me eligible for many different positions, especially those tricky-to-fill positions that require multidisciplinary experience.
And some things intrinsically require cross-disciplinary knowledge, for which a generalist is needed. My ability to create a social networking site for weavers more or less on my own draws from experience and knowledge in social networking, UI design, software engineering, and weaving. I happen to have those because I am a generalist – and thus the best person for this particular job.
But debating the practical merits of being a generalist is like debating the merit of abstract mathematics. The truth is that I’m a generalist because that’s what makes me happy, and it needs no more reason than that.
Secondarily, the fact that I love being a generalist makes me good at it. I pick up different disciplines very quickly, and I’m quick to adapt a thought-pattern from one discipline and apply it to another. I love to explore, and I’m loath to settle down. My belief is that nature, and love, trumps talent: no matter how much talent you have in a field, if you don’t enjoy it you will not achieve excellence in it. Of course loving a field does not mean you will have talent in it – there are plenty of passionate but mediocre writers, cyclists, etc. out there – but true excellence only comes when love meets talent. And excellence, in whatever, form, is worth pursuing.
G.H. Hardy perhaps wrote it best, in his excellent book A Mathematician’s Apology:
A man who sets out to justify his existence and his activities has to distinguish two different questions. The first is whether the work which he does is worth doing; and the second is why he does it, whatever its value may be. The first question is often very difficult, and the answer very discouraging, but most people will find the second easy enough even then. Their answers, if they are honest, will usually take one or other of two forms…
(1) I do what I do because it is the one and only thing that I can do at all well. I am a lawyer, or a stockbroker, or a professional cricketer, because I have some real talent for that particular job…I agree that it might be better to be a poet or mathematician, but unfortunately I have no talent for such purposes.
We have of course to take account of the differences in value between different activities. I would rather be a novelist or painter than a statesman of similar rank; and there are many roads to fame which most of us would reject as actively pernicious. Yet it is seldom that such differences of value will turn the scale in a man’s choice of a career, which will almost always be dictated by the limitations of his natural abilities. Poetry is more valuable than cricket, but Bradman would be a fool if he sacrificed his cricket in order to write second-rate minor poetry (and I suppose that it is unlikely that he could do better).
Hardy was course speaking with the (common) assumption that everyone should specialize and the only question was in what, but the thrust of his argument, in essence, is that it is better to do things which you do exceptionally well than to do those things which you do poorly, is basically similar to mine. Where Hardy and I differ is in his assumption that talent is the issue and that one should follow one’s talent; I firmly believe that love is the fundamental and that one should follow one’s passion; this leads to excellence more surely than mere talent.
(This is, of course, speaking as someone who has talent in many fields – including mathematics – but who seems to excel only when passionate about that particular field. I was passionate about – and quite successful in – mathematics for many years during school, but as soon as I ceased being interested, my ability to do it flopped. I don’t think this is coincidence.)
The net of my argument (if there is a cohesive argument to be made) is threefold:
(1) following a path that makes you happy needs no further justification;
(2) if justification is needed, fine: following a path that makes you happy, and a discipline that you love, gives you more likelihood of success than following a talent that you don’t love;
(3) it is better to be a good generalist than a bad (and unhappy) specialist.
I suppose this is fairly obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t get it. I didn’t, for a very long time.