Sandeep Gautam

The Fundamental Four

Narrow vs Broad: Apologies for Being a Generalist

Different times require different emphasis on specialization vs generalization.

Posted Jan 04, 2012

Jonathan Fields, in his blog post, encourages a single minded pursuit of mastery in a narrow domain over a broad ranging ‘interest' and occupation with wide ranging topics in multiple domains. This is the classical pitting of specialists versus generalists as evident from common wisdom like its better not to be a ‘jack of all trades and master of none'.

Fields specifically mentions this in the context of ‘what you do for a living?', and believes a single, unambiguous answer is better than mumbling something about this, that and then some more. His ire, it seems, is triggered by recent blogosphere bragging whereby some people say they are able to support themselves by let's say blogging a bit, speaking or guest lecturing a bit, acting as a journalist a bit, some royalty payments from authored books etc etc (who are these people, let me know...I wish I was lucky to support myself like this).

He has a sort of condescending attitude towards these people and believes that their blending of interests (say writing, journalism, science etc to become a science blogger, and then some) has more to do with their fear of failure (they might fail if they go all hog in a particular chosen direction to make a living); or has to do with constraints that they may have (lack of ability/motivation to become a master/ expert?), but which they do not acknowledge, but rather hide behind the avowed ‘freedom' this multiple ‘superficial' dabbling allows them to have. If they were to overcome their fear, they may find themselves limited by their constraints to become a master, and this they hide by being a jack of all trades.

Of late I have been accused of not getting the basic premises of posts on which I am commenting correct, so I hope I have characterized Fields position correctly till now.
I see multiple problems with this thesis.

First I see no correspondence between doing multiple things for a living and being a generalist. I may well be very passionate about a domain and master of a domain, yet I may not earn my living in traditional narrowly defined job categories like employed in academics only (a professor) or employed by a newspaper only (a journalist) . In the new world made possible by technology, I may very well earn my living by multiple sources and pared thin being an academic, a blogger, an author, a journalist, a speaker, a personal coach, a board member, a teacher, a consultant to schools, a corporate workshop organizer etc while still being very passionate and narrowly focused on a domain of work like say positive psychology (which I am when I moonlight as a psychology enthusiast). On the other hand I may have a traditional narrowly define job role like software development manager or Technical architect in a large multinational (which is my day job and only source of income), and yet be a generalist in the sense that not very passionately have mastered computer science or management.

So equating what you do for living, whether you support yourself fusing multiple jobs options or a single well defined job is not tantamount to asking the slightly different question what is your passion, what drive you? What do you do that you would continue doing for free?

Here, if Fields position is that it is better to be a specialist rather than a generalist, I have objections to that stance too.

The way Fields puts up the case is that one would feel good being a master in one domain (both the journey and the end result of having achieved mastery) rather than spreading ones energy thin and just being good enough at multiple domains. Here Fields aspirations seem to signal perfectionism- he wants people to become an expert, a master, ‘the' authority on the subject. Here I would like to draw attention on research on perfectionism- that attitude has not been found to be conducive to happiness. As my (online only ) teacher Tal Ben Shahar used to say - you can aim to be good enough in multiple domains but should not aim to be a perfect or best in one or more domains; for happiness per se, and assuming happiness is more desirable than other equally worthy goals like achievement, fame etc, does not arise from having that perfectionist drive of being nest in one (or more domain); it some from a strategy of staisficing and being good enough in multiple chosen domains that are personally meaningful. As they say , best is the enemy of the good. So the argument that mastery will make one happier does not stand on closer scrutiny but is antithetical to much of happiness research which recommends settling for good enough.

There could still be made an argument that in terms of actual benefits, accomplishments, productivity etc specialism is the way to go; here again I have reservations.

The fourth fundamental drive or tension is between Theodre Milon's Broad vs Narrow mode of cognition/abstraction. This tension catches many aspects that Field in his post has alluded to -

  • Focus vs distraction (or should I say focus versus less latent inhibition, more loose associations and more creativity
  • Sequential vs Simultaneous (right brain/ left brain? Language vs spatial? ) 
  • Exploitation (of skills in a domain) vs exploration (trying on multiple roles/ domains) 
  • Specialist (narrow and fragmented knowledge) vs generalist (shallow / thin sliced knowledge over broadly defined domains) 

Some more I'll like to add to the list

  • Analysis (trying to take apart things) vs synthesis (trying to unify things) 
  • Experimentation (ruling out hypothesis - converging ) vs Theory (generating more hypothesis- diverging)

And finally my favorite difference:

The point I am trying to make is that no particular strategy (whether of exploration / broad/ generalization or that of exploitation/ narrow/specialization) is good or bad per se; it is context and person dependent. Both strategies have their uses and different people may use different kind of strategies; or the same person may use different strategies at different times of their life. For ex, it is my contention, that in adolescence you need to play with different roles and dabble a little in a lot to try to figure out your real passion (and hence the increased risk of psychosis start) ; also a fellow PT blogger Nassir Ghaemi has come up with a very reasonable hypothesis that psychotic or bipolar inclined people make for good leaders in turbulent times while more staid people are better suited for times of no change . Similarly research shows that in turbulent times exploration is a better strategy while in calm periods when not much is changing, exploitation is a better strategy.

Thus, it is my contention that we have need for both specialists and generalists but the balance tilts in one direction or the other depending on the environment- in the current disruptive environment , I see no wonder if there is more and more a move towards being generalists or supporting one using multiple jobs/ works.

In the end let me thank Fields for making us think deeply about whether mastery attitude is essential or a generalist attitude is also acceptable and also apologize to him if I have misunderstood some of his position or caricatured him somewhat differently.


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