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Embracing Being a Generalist.

David Sherry
3 min read
Embracing Being a Generalist.

My interests come in go in waves, typically over about a two year time frame. I find something new, and I obsess about it and pretty much devour everything I can on the subject, to a point, then I move on.

I go deep enough to get the general framework, but I stop before the real grind starts towards mastery.

There are diminishing returns for a generalist in the messy middle of mastery, or “the dip” as Seth Godin calls it.

Specialists use the messy middle as a moat and work through difficulty before they achieve clarity.

In some ways, it’s tough to be a generalist…

  • There is a general cultural perspective that life is about “mastery” and being a generalist is an inferior way of living/being in the world.
  • You want to try everything, and you’re excited by the new. But it’s tough to stick with projects for too long.
  • You get bored easily.

However, there are many hidden upsides of being a generalist. I find that…

  • You learn faster than most peers, you’re pretty quick to get up to speed on things.
  • You easily connect with most anyone you meet, because there is something they are interested in that you’ve tasted or tested before and so there is some common interest.
  • It’s super fun finding something new to obsess about, it’s a thrill.

Life is full of variety, and you get to taste a wide range of that variety.

Becoming Legible to the Market.

The part that generalist often find much more difficulty with is the market. The market is seeking the most effective solution, and so you need to become legible to the market, by being a specialist, to optimize for the value you can share with others.

You don’ want your doctor to be not 100% committed to medicine, and you prefer an SEO specialist who lives and breathes their work.

There are two tricks for remedying this in a way that serves your natural inclinations while still meeting the market.

  1. Learn to package your generalism

While it’s tough to “unlearn” being a generalist personality, and I’m questioning even the desire to do so, you can learn to package your current area of excitement in a moment in time to the market.

I have met plenty of people who have been a wedding photographer, event planner, and then small business owner before.

I have met plenty of people who went from accounting to flipping homes.

The point is not a perfect, permanent or specific way of describing who you are to the world forever, but rather a way of describing yourself today.

You can make yourself known as that one thing today, even if you know in a few years time that may change again.

2. Using deep themes or questions that contextualize your work

The second thing is to tie together your generalism in a body of work. This method happens naturally and works with your unique interests.

Generalists can pursue broader themes, questions, and lenses which, across their interests give them a deep perspective from breadth.

For example, a specialist is someone who is obsessed with chess and spends their waking hours practicing, playing, and studying.

A generalist is someone who is obsessed with the idea of game-play, and has researched and gone deep on sports, childhood psychology, board games, and philosophy.

One goes deep by going narrow, the other deep by going wide.

When you tie together your interests in that way, you become more contextually relevant to the market by filling a “Slot” in someones mind about what you do.

Embrace being on the map

For me, I think it’s sort of the antithesis of generalists to be “pinpoint” onto the map. We don’t want to be pinned down in any one location.

Embracing being a coordinate on the map for a point in time is about allowing yourself to be seen as something specific.

Generalists can feel trapped by that but the truth is being specific, and being on the map for others is a way of being in service.

If you never pin yourself down (just for a time) you miss the benefits of being connected or in service.

Think of it like a role to play, if you work at a restaurant, play the waiter role to the fullest. Maybe two years from now you will be in another role and that’s ok. But you miss the connection and service you can provide today with the role that’s available to you. And, if you serve today, even if you leave in 6 months nothing takes away what you learned/did then.

In this way you can embrace going deep and obsessing without worrying so much that it will stick forever.

And you can give up the shame of being someone who “doesn’t finish” things because you can finish many small things along the way, despite letting go of that chapter for something new.

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