Of narrow specialists vs. superficial generalists

Of narrow specialists vs. superficial generalists
Photo by Daniel Cheung / Unsplash

As I'm working with some of you on launching a consulting practice without messing it up too much – the benefits of having-been-there-done-that compounded by my analytical brain that can't keep quiet and demands I find root causes in everything – the discussion about being a specialist vs. a generalist often comes up. This is not a first here. I've brushed the subject a few times and referenced in 2021 a book that unlocked part of the issue for me:

We need more people able to connect ideas across different playfields; who can have a systemic vision of problems, if you will. This calls for some of us to renounce specializing in vertical domains but dabbles in as many as possible. - Range, How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein

This month, Ted Gioia (jazz critic and music historian) wrote about his 12 problems. Just like Feynman's problem in Physics, these are the problems that, for him, are sources of inspiration and forward momentum. His problem Number 5 is "How do I avoid becoming a narrow specialist or a superficial generalist? Is there a third way? If so, how do I get there?"

It's worth a full read:

Philosopher Miguel de Unamuno once said that a smart person can either be a pedant or a dilettante. Both results are unfortunate—and there is no in-between. 

That’s a sad dilemma. I don’t want to be either.

But I see the trade-offs all the time. Some smart people become specialists and know lots and lots about less and less—and this turns them into pedants and obscurantists. It’s almost impossible to avoid this in some settings (e.g., many tenure-track university jobs or research positions). 

And if you push in the opposite direction, you become a dabbler, with a tiny bit of knowledge in many areas, but no depth. And as a great poet once said: “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”

I’ve tried to find a third way. I do immersive deep dives into new subjects—reading 40 or 50 books in a particular area. Then I move on to a different field of inquiry, and do the same thing all over again. This allows me to achieve a degree of specialization in many areas, without getting lost in any of the rabbit holes.

Over time, I have become a specialist in a few areas (jazz and blues, for example), but I have refused to let these turn into all-encompassing pursuits, or push me into debates over minutiae. This has forced me to fight against editors and organizations who decided many years ago that I should only write about one subject.

There’s a lesson there for everybody. The economic engines of society want to make each of us a very narrow person. The ruling institutions will almost always resist our efforts to develop into whole human beings.

That can’t be healthy, can it? So I battle against the constant pressure from powerful forces to narrow and constrain my life. I suspect many of you do too.

It’s hard work. But it gets easier if you accept that resisting these pressures is one of your main recurring projects, and hence give it the energized and informed response it requires.


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