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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Advice From Henry Ford - Crushing the Crippling Fear of Failure

Advice From Henry Ford and Crushing the Crippling Fear of Failure

This post is strongly geared towards education, but the principles are universally applicable. 

Failure isn’t what stops most people from achieving their full potential. It’s the fear of failure that is the real issue. It’s something that can be dealt with, and I’ll explain what I did to get past this. In fact, the goal -for me at least- was to become comfortable with failure, and know that I can get past it.

It’s important to fail because I know that if I’m not failing at least a few times every so often, that means I’m not trying anything new, working hard enough, growing, or taking enough risk.

My grandmother gave me a pivotal piece of advice when I was in my mid-teens. She quoted Henry Ford, who famously said “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right”. I have this quote plastered up on my goal-setting board (I know, what a creative name) and I live by this principle.

When it comes to achieving higher grades, many students fail before they even begin. The majority of battles are won and lost within the mind. Many of my friends have said some variation of the following to me when I ask them why they don’t aim for higher grades:

“If I don’t expect too much, then at least I won’t be disappointed if I fail. And If I end up succeeding, it’ll be a pleasant surprise”.

Getting Rid of Fear

Why be afraid of some disappointment and failure? That’s literally the worst that could happen. So why not aim really high and try your best to achieve it? What happens if you fail? You’ll come away knowing that you put in your best effort and that your tried everything within your power and therefore have no regrets.

You’ll definitely fail if you don’t try, so what do you have to lose if you do?

The “What do you have to lose?” question is incredibly powerful. Really ask yourself and list down some answers in your head or on paper. You’ll find that it’s really not as bad as you think.

People tend think that they have so much to lose and that the disappointment will be crushing if they fail. However, when I ask them to tell me exactly what it is that they’re going to lose, they usually don’t have much of an answer.

The feeling is psychological, and that’s what prevents them from trying. Once they realise that there really isn’t much on the line, and so much to gain just by trying, they usually end up much further than they expected.

Overcoming My Struggle with Math

Back in middle school, I was terrible at math. My friends could easily achieve a 90 percent in tests while I struggled in the low 40s. As many students in that position would, I decided math just wasn’t my subject and gave up.

This became a self-fulfilling prophesy. I believed that I was bad at math, and that’s exactly what I got. What you believe, you become. The secret is simple, alter the way you think.

Let’s go back to the quote by Henry Ford for a second. If I went into something, already convinced that I was going to fail, do you suppose that I’d somehow end up succeeding? 9 times of of ten, the answer is no. I might get lucky, but that’s the exception, rather than the rule.

Realising this, I changed the way I approached math in high school. Rather than think of it as horribly intimidating and difficult (which was pretty much guaranteeing failure), I began to consciously tell myself that math was easy and I was good at it. Of course, you probably won’t believe yourself at first and might even feel stupid doing it, as I certainly did.

It just needs to be an internal dialogue with yourself, so don’t be embarrassed and worry that you might fail and disappoint yourself. This seems pretty obvious when I say it, but most people seem to have an inbuilt system designed to prevent themselves from “bragging”, even to themselves. In this case, you need to brag. Just to yourself at least. Fake the confidence, until you start to believe it, and eventually it will become real.

This trick actually worked for me. After 3 months of repeating this to myself, I had literally convinced myself that math was easy and began to notice a dramatic improvement in my understanding of math, which translated into much higher grades. I applied this same trick to physics and chemistry in high school and the exact same thing happened. I went from barely scraping a 50 percent to averaging 80s and 90s.

It’s All About the Small Wins

I realised something else soon after this experience. I started having to study a lot less and put in a lot less effort. The reason was an increase in confidence. As a result of these early, small wins, I had begun to believe in my own ability, and I had removed the mental block that so many students, including myself, struggle with.

This has nothing to do with natural intelligence or talent. Of course, some people are naturally inclined towards these kinds of subjects, but I certainly wasn’t. I was extremely frustrated with myself until I started using this technique and I found that I could attain the same if not better grades than my peers whom I am still convinced were genetically tuned for excellence in math and science.

The power of belief is often underestimated. I’ve since applied this to almost everything in my life and noticed that it always works. Try this out for yourself and see how it goes. The caveat however, is that you have to try your absolute best to convince yourself until you really do believe in your ability. Doubt is always normal, but do your best to shove it into a corner, punch it until it loses consciousness, and leave it there.

Look to fail, it’s the best thing you can do for yourself.

It’s lonely at the top. Ninety nine percent of people are convinced they can’t do great things, so they aim for mediocre.

            – Tim Ferriss