I’d have to throw my hands up to admit to being a generalist. I flit happily between disciplines, peeking over the edge of the abyss at the vast range of knowledge, picking out a few choice pieces, then retreating to explore some other area. Sometimes i think it would be nice to stop and burrow a bit further into one particular subject, but invariably my interest is piqued elsewhere.
Being a generalist has it’s bonuses: not least that you are able to follow the trail of interest wherever it may lead, but it does, inevitably, have a downside. I perpetually nudge up against the barriers of my knowledge, push against ignorance in every direction. I often feel that i understand problems conceptually, but lack the detailed knowledge to resolve them or understand them fully.
Well, you can’t have everything i guess.
Taking such a wide stance gives you an interesting perspective on many subjects, it allows you to see the commonality between areas, to cross pollinate ideas, and to share expertise across disciplines. Very often ideas are shared, even if they are called different things by different people.
Within a project team i am always aware of the value of difference. You don’t need everyone to be good at everything, but it really helps if you have a wide range of perspectives. People with a technical development background will bring certain strengths, which i understand and appreciate, but may be inflexible in other areas. A film maker may bring a fluidity to their working style, but may lack the structure needed for a timely project. Both may use an agile methodology, but may call it a different name.
There is often a broad grouping of people into ‘technical’ or ‘creative’, although this is a distinction that i regularly fight, even if from different sides, depending upon which day of the week it is. The ability to wield an iPhone in anger and talk about SQL means that i often get grouped into the ‘technical’ box, although a beard helps me to be occasionally stereotyped as ‘creative’. I’d like to be both. Indeed, one of my frustrations is when people categorise themselves as ‘techie’ or ‘i’m not creative’.
Categories may be useful, but they restrict how we think and what we can achieve. In my experience, anyone can be creative, it’s just that they may not flex those particular muscles very often.
But further than this simple distinction, there are other reasons why being a generalist is good. It means i get to meet inspiring people from a whole range of different fields, that i get to think about all their great ideas and then try to leverage my own learning off the back of it. Lucky me.
Being able to cast you net widely, to explore all the disciplines around you, gives you access to a great wealth of thinking and ways of looking at the world, some of which may map nicely against yours, others of which may challenge or amaze you. Ideas have power, they can generate momentum and propagate widely, far beyond their original realm. Inspiration is equally valuable whether you are a developer, an artist or a writer, although you may couch this in different language.
Inspiration is a valuable commodity. It’s the spark that ignites the fuel that drives the engine. Or is that only in petrol engines? You see, this is the problem with being a generalist. You never really know what you’re talking about.