The return of the generalist

When you think about Plato and Confucius, you probably think about their contributions to philosophy and politics. What you might not realize is that most of the ancient philosophers wrote about a wide variety of things. For instance, Aristotle wrote about physics, the history of animals, poetry, dreams, metaphysics, ethics, memory, prophesy, and more. Most of the early philosophers were generalists, explorers, and all around very curious people.

Many public intellectuals today also have this characteristic. I recently read Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker, who is trained as an experimental psychologist, takes his readers through history to argue that violence is on the decline. He reflects in depth on trends in politics, religion, biology, psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Other curious generalists I tend to appreciate (even if I don’t agree with them from time to time) are Howard Gardner, Noam Chomsky, and David Brooks.

I recently started a doctoral program at George Washington. Doctoral programs are notorious for being ultra-specific. One’s dissertation is meant to be original research contributing to knowledge on a particular phenomenon, idea, historical event, piece of literature, or some other esoteric thing. In fact, when SAT or GRE prep books give example sentences to help the learner better understand the meaning of the word esoteric, they often will say something like, “The professor’s research was so esoteric that only a few people in her field understand it.” And while the nature of doing a doctoral degree is very specialized, I want to do everything I can do become a curious generalist.

How do you become a generalist? I think you become a generalist by following your interests, making connections across disciplines, and beginning to see how interconnected the world really is. One of my favorite teachers in all of life, Bruno della Chiesa in a class called Learning in a Globalizing World, talked about how, from a neuroscientific standpoint, making neural connections, discovery, and learning are extremely pleasurable. In fact discovery is one of the most pleasurable things the brain can experience.

Here are a couple of ideas. First, it’s important to follow your interests as best you can. For me, I remember becoming interested psychology at age 16 when I read Walden Two by the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner. Walden Two is a fictional story about a community based on Skinner’s understanding of behaviorism. I found it fascinating. I didn’t agree with Skinner and the sacrifice of personal liberty for the greater good in this fictional community. Actually in many ways I relegated the story to the same level as Stephen King who I also loved reading at the time. For a modern-day example of behaviorism but not to the extent of Walden Two, look at Singapore, which in many ways controls people’s behavior for the sake of the greater good. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s longtime leader, wrote an excellent book (albeit controversial to us Americans), called From Third World to First, which explains his ideas and reasoning for creating such a society. But back to the point. When I read Walden Two, it opened up a whole world of interest for me in the domain of psychology.

As I continued to explore psychology I became fascinated in religion and ethics as well.  What is right and wrong? How do you know? What does it mean to live a meaningful life? At Whitworth University I took core classes on Western civilization that reviewed history, philosophy, and policy. While I hated (and still despise) mass lecturing and what often felt like busy work, I found the topics in these core classes fascinating and applicable to life in many ways. I have continued to explore those ideas.

I also lived in Thailand for 4 years, which blew open my worldview and interests. I saw a whole new way of making meaning of the world, one that was based more on listening and acceptance rather than “understanding” and control. Culture has continued to fascinate me, so much so it appears now that my doctoral dissertation will likely revolve around the cultural component of learning. All that remains to be seen for sure, of course. My interests continue to evolve.

At the end of the day, to be a generalist means seeing the world as connected through space and time. It means following your interests, learning from others, and reading things you love. It means learning because you’re intrinsically motivated to do so. (There seems hardly a bigger tragedy in education than to learn because you have to!) Life is a surprising, complex, fantastic, and wondrous thing. Let’s be curious together about this amazing world we live in.


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7 Responses to The return of the generalist

  1. Rustam says:

    What a great post. I enjoyed reading it and heeding advice. I think my dad would disagree with you on the importance to being a generalist, but I love it and couldn’t agree more!
    With love

    • Thanks brother. Always great to read your comments. Not that there’s nothing to disagree with (sorry for the negatives) but I’m curious – what do you think your dad would disagree with?
      With love right back at you,

      • Rustam says:

        My dad thinks one should have a strong knowledge in one specific area. He has always wanted me to be great at one thing…business/economics, in my case. By concentrating all your time and effort in one thing will help you become best in it. He didn’t want me to learn music or art or any other “insignificant” areas of education. Hence, being generalist is not being the best.
        I dared to venture the other “insignificant” areas. I think my dad is right and wrong..but mostly wrong in my case. He is definitely best in what he does, but totally missed the beauty in other areas and seeing how all ties together. I see God and his work in every areas of humanity and i think it made me thirsty to learn things i have never learned just to see the glimpse of His wonders. Thats something my dad is missing out on.
        Hope that makes sense, Oz.

  2. ashibs says:

    From one aspiring generalist to another – another great post here, Ozzie! 🙂

  3. Brad says:

    While a lot of people might want to be a generalist, I think it’s hard to justify the time. Most people think they’ve already got a lot on their plate, and let’s assume for the sake of argument that those things are important, this would mean their time is limited (as if it’s not already). With the economic incentive to specialize, I assume it’s hard for most people to spend the time necessary to become a generalist. That’s my guess as to why Rustam’s dad would disagree with you.

    Or perhaps I’ve missed your point? In any case, I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this subject as I have a keen interest in being a generalist also …but the economics just aren’t there.

    • Rustam says:

      I responded to Ozzie’s question before I read yours. But you are spot on! My dad would say being a generalist is being mediocre at many things, not being best in one thing.
      But I have to say that some of my inspiration or creativity in my line of work comes from my experience in other areas of life.
      Its hard to explain what i mean, i am definitely not good at writing. I wish we all got together and discussed this.
      Sincerely, Rustam

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