The All - Believer Magazine
Initially, we are encouraged to try a handful of things, to be “well-rounded,” but this directive quickly fades. Over time, we are expected to spend more time on things we do better and less time on those things we do worse than other people.
As we ascend into higher education, we are required to narrow our interests until, at the end of our schooling, we might pursue a doctorate, for which we are expected to choose a focus so magnified that it’s unlikely to be of use beyond a small community of academics. Consider reading a book-sized work about phenolics and phenolic-polysaccharide linkages in Chinese water chestnut cell walls. But we focus for a good reason: Small ponds make fish feel big. We build our identity with limitations.
Consider three alternate models for a human lifetime: a gene pool, an ecosystem, the human microbiome. Unlike roads, brands, and theorems—all man-made—these are organic, and are made better for their diversity. A mixed gene pool resists disease. A complex ecosystem thrives. A varied diet blooms healthy intestinal bacteria.
I’m at a party of socially ambitious people and someone asks me the usual introductory question “What do you do?” I know what the person really means: *Define yourself for me, and quickly, please*. My ideal response would include a description of my job, passion, social milieu, and politics, but my real answer is usually messy, pointing in several directions at once. Or I decide to give a partial answer, to slide quickly out of that interaction. For better or worse, I don’t have one activity that defines me.
It’s easy to think about other people in terms of a single, memorable symbol, even if we know it is incomplete. It feels dehumanizing to be pigeonholed or profiled, because that kind of reduction can’t actually express the uncategorizable, slippery nature of being a human.
Identifying with a specialty is a way of bypassing the murky mystery of the self and arriving at the answer “I am what I do.” Farmer, stockbroker, poet, therapist, or military captain—to call these “jobs” misses an important part of their function. They are modes of being in the world.
Consider conversation. Most of us are highly developed dialogists, speaking in myriad situations over the course of our lives. We usually do not consider this a skill to be mastered, but if we try to learn another language, it quickly becomes apparent that verbal competency like this requires tremendous rehearsal.
Dorothy Dunnett was a painter, musician, sailor, polyglot, and scholar of the 1600s (a century of great polymaths). She wrote: “Versatility is one of the few human traits which are universally intolerable. You may be good at Greek and good at painting and be popular. You may be good at Greek and be good at sport, and be wildly popular. But try all three and you’re a mountebank. Nothing arouses suspicion quicker than genuine, all-round proficiency.”
Let’s talk about mastery. Everyone wants to be a master, even if they are disgusted by the monstrous implications of the word. Mastery suggests dominance over something, but every true master knows that they are merely a supplicant at the mercy of their field, which existed long before them and will exist long after them. Anyone who believes in their own mastery likely suffers from hubris. Work hard enough at something and you watch your dominance slip ever further away.
I also stopped being compelled by the aesthetic of virtuosity. Those cascades of notes lost their appeal, and I’m now grateful that savant-level technique is not the only path available for art. Many feelings can be expressed only through the hands of a novice, and many sensations are more richly expressed through a beginner’s mind.
Unlike institutional education, which is specialized, self-education does not seem to encourage single-mindedness. There is no one path toward truth, handed down by some authority, but rather manifold diverging directions of knowledge with no sure direction.
In this way, the generalist must have a high tolerance for complexity, confusion, and uncertainty. Generalism does not offer the clearly tiered progression offered to the specialist. Working across various fields means you will likely spend long periods being unskilled at them. The generalist can acquire new talents, but they are also a perpetual amateur in a cycle of discovery and failure. There are benefits to this process: slowness encourages a certain quality of attention; novelty encourages a sharp perspective; and an outsider’s position keeps you immune from the insider’s tunnel vision.
Isaiah Berlin, the political theorist, ethicist, philosopher, and historian, wrote a book called *The Hedgehog and the Fox*, in which he divides people into two types: hedgehogs, who see the entire world through one big thing, and foxes, who see the world as many things that cannot be reduced. According to Berlin, hedgehogs include Plato, Dostoyevsky, and Proust, while foxes include Aristotle, Shakespeare, and James Joyce.
If generalism is an opening of focus, specialism is a narrowing of it. In most aspects of life—in our relationships with others, in our problem-
solving—openness of mind is considered a positive attribute. Closed-mindedness, on the other hand, is a precursor to prejudice. Likewise, diversity of background and culture is thought to enrich a community. But in our lives and work, we choose to limit our perspective for maximum productivity and greatest success.
Epictetus said, “It’s not what happens to you but how you react to it that matters.” Another way of saying this is: what you pay attention to is reality. In every moment, where are you aiming your senses? Over the course of a year, what have you cumulatively given the most attention to? To which person or subject or task or issue do you offer the most valuable currency you have: time? For me, I hope the answer to this question is always an ever-expanding number of things.
Over time, I have continued to pile on miscellaneous interests and jobs. When people learn of the large number of vocations I pursue, they often ask: “But which is your favorite?,” as if I were a child unable to decide on a color that defines me. I usually explain that all of them are my favorite. That I need them all.
The glaring danger of general thinking in its extreme form is relativism, a sort of mushy non-position in which there are no universal standards: nothing can ever be condemnable or universally wrong. At the most dramatic levels, relativism might dismiss murder and genocide. It’s a slippery slope of open-mindedness.
Contradiction is the sign of a balanced life. To contradict is to reject a single set of facts or tenets. The vicissitudes of life demand that we change constantly and no method of thought will be able to address every change. It is essential to accept this uncertainty.
Likewise, a generalist must contend with political centrism. In our bifurcated world, the center is one of the most reviled of all political positions, and a generalist will come to understand whether their own centrism is an evasion of choice or a refusal of unpalatable options.
Art critic Jerry Saltz wrote, “Any artist who is consistent is not being true to themselves. Unfurl the sails of inconsistency and uncertainty to reach the further shores of art.”