What’s Wrong with Being a Generalist?

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I’ve always thought that life is too short, the world too big, and the wonders of existence too many, to specialize in anything. But today’s ruling ethos says that specialization is the way to advance your career or to become, say, a celebrated pianist. But is this really true?

Maybe breadth over depth is the way to go. What I do know is that it’s about time we start questioning the “specialize or perish” wisdom of our times.

That sentiment is also expressed in a new book called Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein.

In a New York Times review of the book, Jim Holt summarizes the author’s central argument: “Becoming a champion, a virtuoso or a Nobel laureate does not require early and narrow specialization. Quite the contrary in many cases. Breadth is the ally of depth, not its enemy. In the most rewarding domains of life, generalists are better positioned than specialists to excel.”

Breadth is the ally of depth, not its enemy.

“If true, this is good news,” Holt continues. “It means that excellence and well-roundedness naturally go together; that each of us – in principle, at least – can realize the ‘comprehensiveness and multiplicity,’ the ‘wholeness in manifoldness’ that Nietzsche celebrated as the essence of human greatness.”

 

To supply evidence for these claims, Epstein opens the book with a tale of two sportsmen – Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. The former wielded a putter before he could walk or talk, while the latter dabbled in many sports before zeroing in on tennis. Epstein argues that similar to Federer’s case, there are many more successful athletes who go through a “sampling period” while delaying specialization than there are those who throw themselves into one sport early on.

All that is fine and interesting but why must sports take center stage? To be fair, Epstein reserves chapters of the book for other areas like music, art and technology, but nevertheless, Range remains a sports-centric book (his earlier book is called The Sports Gene and he was a senior writer for Sports Illustrated).

Far beyond sports stars, what I would like to know is how being a budding “generalist” today compares to the idea of the so-called “Renaissance man.” Is the extraordinary breadth of knowledge that Leonardo da Vinci achieved in the late 15th/early 16th century even possible in the 21st which has been so thoroughly dominated by scientific and academic hyperspecialization?