Why You Should Consider Being a Generalist
Be a swiss army knife. Be flexible
The light in the room has been dimmed to a minimum to save energy — unnecessary energy that is. There is a constant vibration coming from a single source of origin, and it echoes throughout the expansive room. As if trying to tune and synchronize to the sound of vibration, multiple clicking sounds provide a mechanical melody for the vibration; too mechanical, almost. Once in a while, I hear sneezes and coughs from here and there; perhaps they’re from the workers? Suddenly, there’s a loud thud that echoes through the whole room, cutting off the noise of vibration, and grabs everyone’s attention. Oh, someone just dropped his book. I spy with my little eyes students. I spy with my little eyes a teacher. I spy with my little eyes desks and chairs — it’s a classroom!
During the Industrial Revolution era, the factory model of education was born. Adolescents were educated to specialize in a single area so they can be sent straight to work. This model has been maintained through the 21st century and has not changed a bit. If the description of the classroom in the previous paragraph evokes workers working in a factory, it’s because it is. The idea of specialization has become the irrefutable philosophy engraved in the minds of many. Kids, from an early age, are hurriedly encouraged to pick a desirable career that they might cherish, and parents reverse engineer the path of landing that career — and let their kids take those required courses.
Lazlo Polgar, a Hungarian psychologist, did precisely that, after coming up with a hypothesis that hyper-specialized upbringing could nurture any healthy child into a prodigy. In order to test his hypothesis of early specialization, he needed a wife who was willing to jump on board to test his idea on their children.
He conducted an epistolary courtship and sent letters to a Ukrainian foreign language teacher called Klara. Because Klara was so impressed by the plan Lazlo had devised, they decided to get married. Their strategy began as soon as they conceived a baby girl called Susan. At the age of 4, Susan was taught how to play chess. Due to her young age, she easily absorbed a vast amount of information like a sponge. She won multiple games and, at the age of 16, beat adult opponents and landed on the first page of The New York Times.
At the age of 21, she became the first woman to earn the designation of Grandmaster, the World Chess Federation’s title for top-ranked players. To further strengthen his hypothesis, Lazlo conducted the same type of education to his other children as well. Both Sophia and Judit became top players in chess, and all three of them are multilingual (Susan speaks seven languages). Since these kids were homeschooled, Lazlo had the ability to plan for every detail meticulously. Other than teaching them languages and giving them time for exercising, Lazlo made sure they fully focused on chess.
Tiger Woods, known as one of the best golfers in history, walked a similar path of specialization. At seven months old, Tiger’s father gave him a putter, which he used to drag around. At the age of 21, he became the best golfer in the world.
Moreover, it seems logical that in order to be successful at a single discipline, one has to start as early as possible and continue to receive intensive training. Due to the living proofs of this philosophy and the seemingly indisputable logic, tiger mothers, especially in the Asian countries, started to adopt this strategy and devoted their lives to making sure their children raced through the one-way highway.
Although educating one’s child to be a specialist may seem like a fast and sure way to success, this strategy is actually an exception rather than the norm.
According to David Epstein, the author of Range, most athletes actually go through a “sampling period” in which they try various sports before setting down to a single sport. This sampling period allows potential athletes to gain a breadth of fundamental skills, learn about their own interests and talent, and choose what suits them.
Because of the strong foundational skills and self-awareness of their own interests, these late-bloomer athletes surpass their specialized peers who have already plateaued. This pattern can be seen in different domains that are considered, as stated by David Epstein, a “wicked environment.” David Epstein makes a clear distinction between the “kind environment” and “wicked environment.” Kind environment is where there is minimum uncertainty, and most plans go according to plan. In contrast, wicked environment abounds with uncertainty, and most plans fail to be completed.
Kind environments are rare and mostly exist in the form of sports or games, where rules are clear and unchanging. However, our real world is a wicked environment. Due to innumerable factors that are relentlessly at play, there is no way to prepare for our future with certainty. David Epstein states that the wicked environment is where generalists triumph.
Taking on multiple disciplines and going through various experiences, generalists are able to develop the core, invariable principles that can be applied to any discipline. These skills could, for example, be logical and unbiased thinking skills, problem-solving skills, decision-making skills, and learning skills. Unlike hyper-specialized knowledge that is untransferable for specialists and, hence, provides no help when moving to a new discipline, these universal principles that generalists pursue help accelerate learning. Moreover, because these principles can be both used and honed in any discipline, these skills continue to be developed and create the Snowball effect. Having strong foundational roots is the only way to survive in a wicked, windy environment. As the wind blows strongly, any thin, specialist trees will be blown away. However, these generalist trees, having deep roots and multiple branches, remain strong even when a gust charges toward them.
I have especially seen the vulnerability of specialization firsthand. My father is a man of power and status. He understood from early on that in order to achieve success and power, he had to dig one and only one well deeply. He always took managerial positions and climbed up the ladder of hierarchy faster than anyone. Because of his narrow specialization, he was able to be successful and provided our family with an opportunity to live abroad since I was young. This was a remarkable feat since none of our relatives had the opportunity to live abroad and escape the hellish life in Korea.
Although a massive blessing for us, this did not continue. Right after my high school graduation, my father started to seem very alarmed and anxious. He’d realized that his business that he prepared for seven years was at risk. After a trip back to Korea and talking to high-ranking company representatives, he found out that the whole industry he was in had suddenly become outdated and irrelevant due to the high growth in technology. Because he worked alone, he had not realized this on time.
We were bankrupt. Not only was his business unsellable, but he also had no way of transferring the technology or skill to another domain due to it being hyper-specialized. That thin, tall tree of his wobbled and collapsed onto the ground. Before I left for college and had a last, serious talk with my father, he spoke to me in a serious tone and asked me to remember one thing: to learn and experience the world in breadth and try out different disciplines.
The time has now come where generalists should be praised, and the education system changed to support that. Instead of cultivating specialized workers that only benefit the owners, the education system needs to create individual thinkers who can tackle a problem from multiple angles and connect different ideas to give birth to a brainchild. Through the rise of AI and Search Engines, specialized work and information are becoming more and more accessible and less valuable. The generalist approach of education helps prioritize critical thinking and other fundamental skills that withstood the test of time. Not only would this produce more capable and creative “workers,” but also it’ll make each citizen more knowledgeable about the world and allow them to make virtuous decisions that’ll benefit our economy, politics, and community.