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The Downsides of Generalism

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As a self-proclaimed Brain Baker, I pride myself on being a generalist: I’ve been a software developer for 11 years, currently I’m a computing education scholar and teacher, I have a professional bread baking degree and teach sourdough bread baking courses, and I write books and waste a lot of words on different blogs.

That all sounds very impressive and perhaps it is, except that it’s not. I should not kid myself: I’m a specialist, masquerading as a generalist. I’m finishing a PhD which is the very definition of specialism, and my scholarship heavily leans on past experience. I’ve always loved writing, and bread baking Is Just A Hobby That I Picked Up In The Lobby.

One of the perks of generalists, or “multipotentialites” as Emilie Wapnick likes to call it, is that they lean very quickly, adapting to any field, and most importantly, are able to efficiently transfer knowledge from one domain to the other. If you’re talking about Java and C# programming, that’s kind of a no-brainer. And yes, I use my teaching expertise during bread baking workshops, that’s also a no-brainer.

But what if you wanted to do something totally different? What if you want to switch from programming to illustrating or biochemical engineering? A lot of time has to be put in to become proficient and push through various stages of the Dreyfus Model of skill acquisition (according to some, mastery takes ten thousand hours, although that’s been disputed), making you a junior in your current field (again), regardless of prior experience. In a way, that could be called serial specialism, not generalism.

Our society clearly isn’t geared towards generalism. My bread baking book would sell like hot cakes if I was a respected bread baker, but instead, I’m just an average amateur baker—with or without degree or that silly internship. When browsing bookstores, I regularly catch myself leaning towards the instant-belief of specialists. If the back cover of say a philosophical work describes the author as a professor of philosophy—a specialist—I’ll be more likely to buy the work. Manning jumped on board with my Creative Programmer proposal in part because I am researching the topic.

If your project faces a serious problem but your team can’t figure it out, you hire a gene—nope, a specialist. If there’s something wrong with your colon and scans look grim, you’re not interested in hearing the verdict from a general practitioner: you want to hear the opinion of a specialist, only that will be the one truth.

Emilie Wapnick discusses different strategies1 for learning and coping with multiple interests: the Slasher (I’m a baker/programmer), the Einstein approach (take a chill day job and use your energy for own projects), the Group Hugger (find work that touches upon multiple fields), … Yet none of them are able to solve the fundamental problem: society doesn’t care about generalists. At least, not anymore. There was a time when this was very different, and a bit of knowledge of a variety of fields was highly valued, as Peter Burke describes in his book The Polymath.

What’s the first thing you say on a cocktail party—besides I’ll have a vodka martini please, shaken, not stirred? Right: Hi, I’m Wouter, and I’m a programmer, what do you do? Your specialist job label earns respect and makes it easy for people to put others in neatly separated mental boxes: that one’s a programmer, that one’s a chef, and I’m a journalist. Introducing yourself as a programmer, chef, and writer comes at the risk of confusing people (pick something already!). Introducing yourself as a brain baker comes at the risk of being ridiculed.

In addition, there’s the generalist in bad faith, as Peter Klipfel describes:

First, I’d like to address the elephant in the room related to being a generalist. I have often see people refer to themselves as “generalists” because they actually weren’t very good at anything - hence “jack of all trades, master of none”. I have referred to myself as a generalists while trying to defend my ego from people who were much more competent than myself.

Some people roll their eyes at generalists because they think they’re not suited to fix this problem: it’s a specialized issue, what do they know about it? To my shock and horror, this is a very serious problem in software development. Many programmers call themselves Java or C++ programmers and hate switching languages. Then a stupid jerk like myself comes along that is proficient in anything: surely he’s not allowed to touch or domain core, he doesn’t know squat about the JVM concurrency issues! Look folks, if you’re a developer, you’re a specialist, nobody cares about the monkey wrench you happen to wield. “Full stack generalists” are specialists—don’t kid yourselves.

There’s another downside to being a generalist: starting all over again and having to transfer knowledge involves serious cognitive and mental challenges that put generalists to the test. Walking the path of the specialist is the easy way out: there’s only one neatly paved path lined with plenty of street lights in case you risk deviating from it.

Tom Critchlow warns us against specialism and the narrow fields it creates in which you’re easily stuck if the market moves on. I guess that’s true if you consider the specialism/generalism problem to be focused on that level of detail, which I don’t. If you’re consulting, your previous work will almost always have some resemblance with your current gig. Look at it this way: if you’re hired as a Go consultant and the next year as a Kotlin one, you’re still a programming consultant. I think what Tom is trying to say here is that our tendency to hyper-specialize, while it might in some occasions net big bucks, is not only a gamble, but also a danger to society. It can create fragmentation of knowledge where getting something done involves 10 specialists that don’t know how to talk to each other where in the past 3 generalists could have aced it.

If you do decide to start over again, you’ll still have to compete with the experts that never left the easier specialization route: endless seas of “I’m awesome, look at me!” social media posts might kill your motivation to get started.

Do push on! The path to generalism is indeed more challenging, yet the reward at the end of the rainbow is genuine satisfaction. Generalists are much more creative. Generalists are more curious. Generalists as system-thinkers are better at solving high-level problems.

My name is Wouter, and I’m a Brain Baker. Would you care to join me?

  1. If you’re interested in this, read her book How to Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up↩︎

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I am not sure if I am really a generalist with various pokers in the fire as you seem to have Wouter, but I am always willing to dive into new areas of learning. I wonder if the biggest challenge with this is the narrative, something you touch upon...

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I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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