Specialists vs Generalists, The Polymath Ideal

A Jack of All Trades or a Master of One: Specialists vs Generalists

The common saying, “jack of all trades, master of none”, seems to imply that specialisation is superior compared to dabbling in numerous fields. It’s incomplete however, and the actual quote conveys a different meaning:

“A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one”.

A capitalist society reveres the specialist; the more specialised you are, the more valued and respected you become, eventually leading to better remuneration. That being said, specialisation certainly has its place – there are countless specialists who have made significant contributions due to their in-depth knowledge in that specific area. In the medical field, for example, specialists are virtually a necessity as the field is simply too broad for individual mastery.

Benefits of being a specialist:

  • They are able to charge higher rates
  • They have in-depth knowledge of the subject matter
  • They can allocate all of their attention and focus on one field
  • They are regarded as experts in the field, and can act as consultants

The Case for the Generalist

Polymathy is severely underrated, especially in a capitalist economy that  idolises specialisation. I am certainly not against capitalism (we will get into this discussion in an upcoming post), but I do think that this is one of the drawbacks of the system.

If you are competent in a number or fields, you are essentially equipping yourself with a variety of resources and tools. Knowledge can be transferrable, and even applicable across disciplines – an advantage polymaths are able to capitalise on.

Benefits of being a polymath:

  • Talent in various fields
  • Able to apply knowledge gained in one field to another field
  • Ability to make connections easily
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Well rounded
  • Development in multiple areas
  • Able to apply skills in a variety of situations
  • Understand systems thinking or how concepts are interrelated
  • Yeah, this list is a lot longer than the benefits of being a specialist, I’m biased

Polymaths are able to draw upon their knowledge from multiple sources, enabling them to see and make connections that a specialist would not be able to. Innovation is often a result of combining ideas, and extending your areas of knowledge often assists in the process.

Robert Twigger (a British poet, writer and explorer), in his essay “Master of Many Trades“, summarises:

The real master has no tools at all, only a limitless capacity to improvise with what is to hand. The more fields of knowledge you cover, the greater your resources for improvisation.

Famous Polymaths of the Past and Present

Widely considered the epitome of polymathy, Leonardo da Vinci clearly illustrates the point I made above. He was an influential artist, inventor, engineer, botanist, writer, and sculptor, among other things, and it can be argued that he was able to do this because he was able to apply his knowledge from one area into the next.

Other examples from the time include Galileo Galilei and Michelangelo, while modern day polymaths include Tim Ferriss and Elon Musk.

For some interesting further reading, head over to “What Happened to the Polymaths? Some Modern Examples of Homo Universalis and How to Emulate Great Thinkers“. The article poses some interesting theories as to why there appear to be fewer modern polymaths.

“Use It or Lose It”

I’d also like to highlight another point that Twigger makes, about the common misconception that it is essential for one to be naturally gifted in order to succeed in this endeavour:

The fact that I succeeded where others were failing also gave me an important key to the secret of learning. There was nothing special about me, but I worked at it and I got it. One reason many people shy away from polymathic activity is that they think they can’t learn new skills. I believe we all can — and at any age too — but only if we keep learning. ‘Use it or lose it’ is the watchword of brain plasticity.

The Overachieving Brain Surgeon

Consider this: Can a specialist also be a generalist?

Let’s look at a hypothetical brain surgeon for a second. This surgeon is an example of a specialist, but let’s assume that he or she is also a guitar virtuoso, has a decent grasp on poker and chess and happens to be an excellent swimmer. Would the surgeon be still be considered a specialist or would they now be a generalist?

Firstly, do the terms “specialist” and “generalist” only apply to attributes that are relevant to the job market? I have not found a definitive answer to this question anywhere else so far, but I’m going to say that they are not.

From my perspective, the debate about whether it is better to be a specialist or a generalist is quite irrelevant because they are not mutually exclusive. Why choose a side when you can have the best of both worlds?

What do you think? Would you rather choose a side, and if so why? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

 

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