The other day I came across a saying, the first part of which spoke compellingly, if a little ruefully, to my own experience: A generalist is someone who knows nothing about everything (the second half of the saying being – a specialist is someone who knows everything about nothing).
The thrust behind this saying, combined with some recent forays into new knowledge territories, led to some navel gazing and self-evaluation on my part – which I admit I’m prone to from time to time.
I am, arguably, a bit on the far end of the generalist spectrum in both my professional and personal pursuits. Over the course of my schooling I have studied, in varying amounts of depth, western classical literature, chemistry, philosophy, computer science, experimental psychology, neuroscience, machine learning and (even a little bit of) linguistics. I’ve also been involved in research in biology, health studies and information and data management. In the process I’ve been exposed to a wide variety of research methods and techniques, including conceptual, statistical and systems analysis, and many types of modeling. I currently find myself falling under the data science label, where I’m doing analysis projects with computer engineers, statisticians and mathematicians, along with a wide variety of subject domain specialists.
Coming out of my recent navel gazing experience, one thing I will say is this: it’s true that the more you know, (or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, the more areas of knowledge to which you are exposed), the more you not just realize, but feel, in your gut, how little you know in comparison to all that there is to know out there. And your awareness of this gap becomes ever more substantive and explicit the farther on you venture.
Within this context, when you are presented, suddenly, if not entirely unexpectedly, with still more, entirely new, knowledge vistas to explore, the sensation can be a little like the vertigo you experience when leaning over and looking off the top of a steep cliff. Sure, the new view is breathtaking, but it’s a loooooong way down to the bottom.
As an older, hopefully wiser, and perhaps slightly more humble generalist than I was in my younger years, I think there are a number of healthy reactions to such realizations and experiences. The first is that, before running pell-mell into new territories, we generalists should not take for granted our grasp of the knowledge in areas that we already consider familiar territory. For those that we wish to maintain a hold on, we must realize that there will always be new developments, new discoveries and shifts in perspective, which will require us to continually renew and refresh our knowledge base. In some cases, we may simply choose to let that area of knowledge go (linguistics, I might be looking at you).
It’s also easy for our knowledge of fundamental concepts in these areas to become dulled – assuming we understood them in sufficient depth the first time we encountered them, which might have been as far back as our undergraduate degrees! Happily, if we do take the time to regularly return to these concepts, we may find, when we do, that they have become more clear, more salient and more meaningful than they were on our first pass. And at this point we can also beneficially relate them to many other aspects of our knowledge and experience, gained along the way.
In terms of entering new knowledge territories, if we are truly dyed-in-the-wool generalists, it will be hard for us to resist exploring these new spaces. That said, perhaps rather than running willy-nilly through them with naive abandon, we can encourage ourselves to take the time to selectively explore potential new avenues, and combine them strategically and usefully with what we already know, so that we can build upon our existing strengths and knowledge reserves. And perhaps we can take the humble, but realistic approach of starting with the basics, taking the time to really nail the details, and move forward at a modest pace that allows us to integrate all of this with our existing knowledge.
If we do all of these things right, our knowledge base will deepen rather than simply broaden. We will become generalists-who-know-quite-a-bit-about-many-areas-and-also-quite-a-lot-about-certain-specific-areas, or (if we are moving in the other direction) specialists-who-know-a-whole-lot-about-one-area-but-also quite-a-bit-about-several-other-interestingly-related-areas. I admit that’s a little more messy than the original saying. But, then, growth usually is.