I’m a generalist in a world which loves specialists. I’m interested in the entire forest, not just knowing everything about one or two random trees.
When I look up into the sky — such as in this photo I took in Trussville, Ala., six years ago — I see an integrated whole. I don’t focus on one or two trees. I don’t choose a specific cloud and want to study that cloud to the exclusion of the rest. I see beauty in the whole which wouldn’t exist in any particular part by itself.
But our world is set up today for specialists. We’re told that specialists are worth more money and that they have deeper knowledge. We have all benefited from the knowledge and training of specialists in many ways, but we’ve reached the point at which society doesn’t much understand the value of seeing how the many pieces of the whole fit together.
I’ve always been envious of people who could describe what they “are” in one word — a teacher, an accountant, a reporter, a mechanic, a plumber and so forth. No one word fits me. It never has. But I’ve recently realized that I’ve been looking at this the wrong way. The world has a serious need for specialists, but the people who understand what’s going on — who can help us find meaning and help dig us out of the hole in which we find ourselves — are the generalists. Like me.
It’s funny how we typically define ourselves in terms of what other people are willing to pay us to do, rather than in terms of what we intrinsically feel like on the inside. Do we do that because it’s just the social norm? Or do we do it because most of us have never taken the trouble to figure out what we really are? I’m not sure. I do know, though, that it’s impossible to come up with one word to say what I am.
An an ex-girlfriend used to be fond of telling me, “You’re a hexagonal peg in a world where you’re expected to be either a round peg or a square peg. You’re more complex than what most people are prepared to understand.”
About a month ago, I read David Epstein’s new book, “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.” He acknowledges the value of specialists in narrow fields, but he shows example after example of how real understanding and real breakthroughs — even in hard sciences — come from people who have a wide range of experience. People who understand multiple things often find ways of finding solutions in one field by taking analogies from another. I have a few quibbles with him, but the overall thrust of the book is excellent. (Here’s an article about the book if you’d like to decide whether to read it.)
Our world is becoming more specialized, both in the career sense and in the cultural sense. People are so specialized that even those in closely related jobs or subcultures misunderstand each other. That’s very true in work situations — which can make it more difficult to find solutions to hard problems — but it might be even more dangerous that we’re dividing into narrower and narrower subcultures, each of which believes its way should be the only way.
The people of almost every little subculture adopt the peculiar views and assumptions of their subculture. They become specialists in that tiny range of human knowledge, but they know almost nothing outside of that very limited range — even though they feel positively brilliant and have no idea how ignorant they are about the broader world.
As a generalist who’s trapped in a specialist world, I’m biased, but I think we’re all better off when we see far more of the forest — and understand how the trees all interact and form an ecosystem — than when we fixate on any one tree.
Social media seems to pigeonhole people by narrow interests. These are the Trump lovers over here and the Trump haters over there. Those are the dog people over there. And the car enthusiasts hang out right here. The fundamentalist Christians talk to each other — and nobody else — in this narrow place. And don’t go over there, because it’s for the fitness nuts.
The system somehow tries to force people to choose some specialist identity to take on, even as a cultural label.
A lot of things interest me but I don’t want to be defined by any one of them. The ability to segment by interests sounded good in theory when I heard the promise of the Internet years ago, but I think a lot of people are getting such tunnel vision that they’re no longer well-rounded.
The great science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein — who wrote some of my favorite books of youth — said something which I love on this subject.
“A human being,” Heinlein wrote, “should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, co-operate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
I’m not as broadly capable as what Heinlein suggests. I suspect people of a few generations ago were far closer to what he describes. But even though my interests and experience aren’t as broad as what Heinlein says they should be, most people’s are even more narrow.
We live in a world in which people become very proficient in one narrow thing. This gives them confidence in themselves and makes them feel like experts. But they become so myopic that they don’t see how little they know — and this is dangerous.
In the years to come — which I believe will bring about terrible social and economic conditions — your specialist knowledge is going to be essentially worthless. We need more people who understand the broader world and how more things interconnect.
In the terms of my ex-girlfriend, we need more hexagonal pegs. While the square pegs and the round pegs fight it out, the hexagonal pegs might just find the way to survive and thrive in a more civilized way.