Be Good Enough to Participate: a Theory of Generalism

What’s the right balance between being a specialist (being really great at one thing) and being a generalist (being OK at a lot of things)? I and a lot of other people have spent a lot of time thinking this question through.

I don’t know the right answer for you, but while it seems to me that you must be specific if you want to master something (this is another post entirely – see Robert Greene’s Mastery), there is absolutely a place for being a generalist.

Humans are capable of doing thousands of things, from biking to mountain-climbing to typing to growing bananas to building mechanical bulls to shooting paintballs to shearing sheep. The value of being a generalist lies in its ability to unlock participation in more of these parts of human potential. While no human could probably master more than 2-3 things in a lifetime, that’s no reason not to enjoy as much as possible.

You’ve probably watched specialists practice their crafts on one or another of those skills I mentioned. Maybe you’ve seen wrestlers go at it. Maybe you’ve watched poets or standup comics deliver their work on stage. Or maybe you’ve eaten a meal These are the results of specialization, and they are wonderful. But don’t you wish you could be a part of them?

Participation trophies are dumb. But participation isn’t. It takes passive experiences (like the ones above) and makes them active, alive. There are times when it’s better than mastery.

I thrive on being a part of a process, of adding value to it, of mastering the basics. There are all kinds of benefits of becoming a “jack” of other trades besides your specialty:

  • You can become aware of what you don’t know/what you shouldn’t be afraid of in a new skill 
  • You can make new friends in a skill 
  • You can import basic skills into other skill areas
  • You can converse intelligently about the skill 
  • You can get the thrill of learning something new and interesting
  • You can expand your mind

I’m not the only person who likes participation: there’s a great tradition of “pickup games” in sports. There’s karaoke. There are 5K “fun runs.” There’s dancing at weddings, where no one has to be all that good. People love these things, and life would be poorer if we abandoned them in favor of only watching experts.

As you pursue mastery in one or two things, you may not be able to be a jack of *all trades*. But it’s not necessarily the case that you can’t still enjoy many trades as a layman. You don’t have to be a master. You can be a jack. You can taste all of the gifts of life: basketball, knitting, horseback riding, entrepreneurship, painting, drinking whiskey, speaking French, and so on.

You’ll be richer if you do.

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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