Should We All Be Generalists?

Here's a typical day for me (though I have to admit the variability is high, so it's hard to give you anything "typical"):

I wake up when I wake up, though that's usually early (6:30ish). I have breakfast with the hubby, then I do one of four different types of writing or take care of some aspect of my side business (paperwork, bookkeeping, scheduling, correspondence, consulting, planning). I make the choice based on what moves me and/or based on what I feel requires my attention. Midday, I go out for a much needed walk or bike and fresh air and take care of some errands or chores that need tending to (plants, dog, laundry, paying bills, cleaning, reviewing investments, small repairs, etc.), get food stuffs ready for dinner and then immerse myself in some business activity or read about one or more topics that fascinate me, followed by some gym time (2-3X per week or so - I'm not a saint). Dinner follows at around 7:30pm and the rest of the evening is spent on some R&R-type hobbies or activities*.

I enjoy all of it, mostly because it's all so different. I don't usually spend more than 3 hours a day on any one thing. And that makes me very happy. The variety is wonderful and the ability to determine how much time I spend on what is also quite the luxury. 

In my heart of hearts, despite the pressure society puts on us to specialize**, I'm increasingly of the opinion that we're all meant to be generalists. And, having experienced both ends of the spectrum, my current beliefs around the benefits of being a generalist are based on the following:

  1. Variety is the spice of life. Outsourcing life activities kills variety.
  2. Learning keeps the mind sharp and curious for more.
  3. Shifting gears offers the opportunity for "soak time".
  4. There's a great benefit in shifting back and forth from physical to intellectual activities.
  5. We relate better with others when we're involved in a greater variety of things.

1. Variety is the spice of life.

Thinking we'll be doing the same thing all day, every day doesn't often delight anyone, at least not over the long term. The ability to stop working on something while it's still enjoyable or when you've reached a point where it makes sense to stop and focus on something else is the ultimate luxury. Variety enables us to avoid the inevitable feeling of drudgery by feeding the desire for something different.

If it's true that variety puts us in a happier headspace, why do we go against our gut and outsource anything that's not germane to what we "do". We hire the lawn guy, the pool guy, maybe a housecleaner, a dog walker, a painter, handyman, etc. We also buy ready-made meals, order take out or eat out. Each of the activities these services replace have merit in their own right. If our only reasons not to engage in them are based on household economics, we're missing all the other reasons to do them:

  • Spending time with family and friends,
  • Spending time with our own thoughts,
  • Spending time being active,
  • The satisfaction of a job well done.

Not having to complete these tasks on a regular basis usually leads to one of two things or both: more time at work doing more of the same or more time avoiding thinking about work (usually by sitting zombie-like in front of the TV.*** 

Looking back at our ancestors, our level of specialization brought about during the industrial revolution is anything but natural, and it's making us miserable, and either bored or anxious & stressed out.

2. Learning keeps the mind sharp.

Being a generalist means you don't know everything about what you do every day. When we do the same thing day in and day out, the mind gets lazy. We stop thinking about what we're doing. We stop wondering if there's a better way.

Critical thinking and problem solving is part of what we need to do on a regular basis to stay sharp. The need to look at information, situations and decisions we've never experienced before helps keep us engaged. It helps us learn and, more importantly, it keeps us curious. By having to tackle new situations, ideas and tasks, we keep becoming better versions of ourselves and, as I wrote about in the article on trying new things, it also makes us increasingly better at handling new and different scenarios. 

Self-reliance comes in various forms and I know of very few states of being as satisfying as knowing that you can take care of yourself without having to depend on others.

3. Shifting gears offers the opportunity for "soak time".

Ask anyone where they were when they came up with one of their brilliant ideas. Chances are it wasn't while working on the task or problem they were trying to complete or solve. We often hear of the best ideas coming during a walk, a conversation, while taking a shower, in a dream, on a run, on vacation, etc. The point is that sometimes, taking a step back just helps us think and come up with better ways of doing things.

I'd say that my most creative moments are definitely not in front of the keyboard. They may be fleshed out there, after the fact, but they more often than not happen while doing anything but writing. I'll get ideas reading other peoples' work, taking a walk, listening to a podcast, while housecleaning, bike riding, gardening, taking a class on a different topic, etc.

Shifting gears helps us by creating natural soak time for our more complicated tasks or activities. I find that works especially well when moving from an intellectual activity to a physical one--like I did going from this blog post to prepping dinner and back.

The least creative moments? When we force ourselves to stay on task, as anyone who starts working on a task the day before it's due can attest (term paper anyone?). That hardly ever results in what we might call our best work.

4. Shifting back and forth from intellectual to physical activities helps.

You may have heard that sitting is the new smoking. If we look at our daily activities, a lot of us spend the day sitting. And, if you have a "desk job" or spend a lot of time sitting reading, researching, or performing other sedentary tasks, my guess is that, the more specialized it is, the fewer the reasons to get up and get away from your work for a while. 

The benefits of moving can't be understated. The brain's job is to enable us to think and move and if we're not doing some of both, we're missing out on being our best. Moving not only helps our overall fitness, but it helps keep our brain healthy by safeguarding against or reducing the potential for cognitive decline and provides a much-needed change of pace.

Moving increases the types of stimulus our brain is exposed to on a regular basis and that keeps it on its toes. Hey, if Steve Jobs liked to have walking meetings, maybe it's not a bad idea for us either!

And it takes very little time and effort for anyone to achieve gains from this switching of gears. If you're not convinced the above makes it a change worth considering, you have to watch this 23 1/2 hours video. I'm sure that making dinner, housecleaning, taking a walk or mowing the grass will start to look more appealing to just about anyone.

5. We relate better with others when we're involved in a greater variety of things.

Ever heard of the young woman who's living on virtually nothing other than chicken mcnuggets? I'm sure you're thinking "How boring and how unhealthy!". Eating "beige-coloured" food for my whole life sounds boring and it sounds like it would affect everything: relationships, the ability to be away from home, the ability to understand other cultures, appreciation for the world around us, never mind the health-related impacts. 

Well, being a specialist is not that different than what this young woman is experiencing. Her narrow focus is a significant hurdle in relating to others and I'd say that the more things we expose ourselves to in life makes us:

  • More interesting - how could you not have something to talk about?
  • People who can relate to others with more ease because it's more likely we can easily find something we have in common.
  • More empathetic & compassionate people, given we're likely to have a better. understanding of what another person may be experiencing.
  • Self-assured individuals who can handle the unexpected and that makes people feel good around us.
  • Grateful individuals because we have a better understanding of what it takes for a variety of people to do what they do every day. 

I hope you see I've made my case with the points we explored above and I think I can add one more bonus angle to this thesis:

Bonus - 6. Previous learnings apply to new experiences.

When it comes to being generalists in our careers, I'd suggest taking a long-term perspective on the need to be generalists.

I think a person who values the benefits of being a generalist can view a career as a series of links of different experiences. One of my favourite posts on the subject is from J. Money at Budgets are Sexy: My Entire Work History: All 35+ Jobs! ;). Granted, a number of these jobs wouldn't likely be called a "career", but that great variability has made J a more interesting and well-rounded person. Plus, anyone who's read his posts and/or met him in person would be hard-pressed to say his history hasn't paid off personally and financially.

I'm already on my third career, which sounds about right given I'll be turning the "Big 4-0" next year. That gives me an average of 8 years per career, which is a theme I saw in a SMBC cartoon a few years ago (pictured right).

My background includes working in a family-owned retail business, working in planning & marketing for large firms, working as a trainer and coach and now dabbling in writing and publishing. Most of these careers have overlapped as I worked to develop interests during off hours. I highly recommend doing this because if you don't try something before committing a serious amount of your time and energy to it, how can you be sure you'd even like it?****

Bonus point #6 goes beyond the five I listed previously because the broad context that a variety of experience offers compounds your usefulness, both for yourself in the form of increased confidence in being able to handle any job and to an employer in the form of a more employee.

Every career I've had so far makes me better at addressing problems and opportunities that come along. Having so many very different experiences to tap into makes me better at what I do today and I have no doubt that what I do today will make me better at whatever I choose to tackle next.

It's almost like a snowball effect. The more experiences, the more you can tap into this experience to come up with new combinations of ideas and approaches to problems or projects. Pretty cool.

Do you favour being a generalist or do you think being a specialist is what can make us happiest in life?

* R&R would currently involve such things as walking the dog, talking with my guy, watching a documentary or part of a movie, going out for coffee with a friend, relaxing with a book (again), practicing archery (new addition), taking a class, and other interesting endeavours.

** I can't stand that social requirement, just as I don't appreciate having to define myself based on what I "do". If you want to see my full rant on the issue, you might like this article: LinkedIn Is So Last Century.

***The average American adult spends 5 hours a day doing just that. WOW!!!

**** That's why I'm such a big fan of apprenticeship programs. How horrible for students to finish a 3 or 4-year degree only to realize they don't like the work they will be doing for years. Yuk!