I was raised to believe that I was made to do one thing. Find that one pursuit that fills my life with meaning and empty all my energy into it. This is the realization of human potential: to excel with rigorous focus on a refined lifelong mission. This and only this will bring us to our greatest success and fulfillment.
For me, this was not something I even had to be told—though I was, many times, by many people—because I implicitly understood that this kind of teleology was woven into the fibers of my world. I also knew that rejecting a singular pursuit would be an insult to my very existence. Without this unifying reason for being alive, I would wander aimlessly into the barren void of nihilism. I’d heard about great artists who refused to create, who stepped away from their work to fritter away their time on leisure, and I knew this was a life of tragedy.
Likewise, I understood that sliding your attention across interests is a way to waste your gift. The more hours you put into a skill, the more skilled you become—right? To treat your gift with the proper deference, you must exhaust yourself into it.
Within this paradigm, the most unfortunate people are those who do not have a single, clear vocation. These types float from job to job without a trajectory; they are vagabonds who have given up on greatness.
This may sound a little dramatic, but somewhere inside me, these beliefs are there—and as a lifelong generalist, I spend every day rubbing up against them.
Most paradigms are formed during the school years. We enter a liberal arts education with our classes divided up neatly, like peas and carrots on an obsessive’s plate, and we are taught each subject in isolation, with only the vaguest sense of how all the material connects.
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.
The generalist Helen Keller was born in 1880. She was the first deaf-blind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree, which she did at Harvard University. She wrote 475 speeches and fifteen books, on subjects including optimism, birth control, atomic energy, fascism, and her own spirituality, which was influenced by the work of Emanuel Swedenborg, a mystic-philosopher-scientist from the 1700s. She cofounded the American Civil Liberties Union, which has grown into one of the country’s largest public-interest law firms and civil rights organizations. She was a leading member of the Socialist Party, writing columns and lecturing on the subject. She traveled to thirty-five countries. In 1948, she visited Japan as a US goodwill ambassador and left beloved by the country. She is considered one of the key figures in women’s suffrage, the anti-war movement, disability awareness, and is a phenomenon of human potential.
The belief in unity permeates everything around me. In my culture, in the last few decades in America, the majority of people spend their lives trying to concentrate their energy.
In science, for example, the greatest aim is a unified theory of everything, and the field’s lodestars, Einstein and Hawking, are symbols of this great goal in the sky.
In belief systems, the largest traditions are monotheistic.
In materialism, a primary belief of Western secularism, all the world is one thing: matter.
In philosophy, thinkers such as Hegel, Marx, Skinner, and many others have whittled their thinking down to monism, the idea that the origin of all things is a single essence.
In economics, capitalism favors single-minded activity for maximum productivity. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith wrote that one man could make only one pin a day, but that a factory of ten specialists, each performing a single step, could produce forty-eight thousand a day.
In relationships, monogamy is the standard—despite many people’s resistance to it. In agriculture, monocropping creates fields of a single plant, cloned, and most people live in a single home, rather than continuing the nomadism of our ancestors.
Reduction is how people make sense of the world. Even our cosmos is called the universe; it was born from a Big Bang singularity but speaks in infinite multiplicity.
If a person were to be dogmatic about the pursuit of unity, they might find themselves with some metaphors to describe their endeavor: Life is a road, leading us onward. Stay in your lane.
Or: Life is a great enterprise. Keep on brand. Develop a style and stick with it. Avoid contradictions, like switching political parties, which could throw all your previous principles into question. Being consistent is being dependable.
These are trite simplifications. But they are frameworks that many of us have used to evaluate our progress. However, whenever I find myself taking stock of myself by these measures, I find myself in a pit of depair, so I reject them.
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.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born in 1749. He is considered one of most significant figures in literary history, due largely to his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther and to his poetic drama Faust. Ralph Waldo Emerson considered Goethe to be the writer of history. Goethe, however, thought his most important advancements were in the sciences. The term Goethean science now refers to his particular studies of the natural world, a phenomena-first approach that emphasizes the experiential. His work explores leaf organs, optics, color theory, religion, evolution, aesthetics, and mineralogy. In fact, iron (III) oxide-hydroxide, the most common component of rust and the pigment used in cave paintings, was named “goethite” in his honor. In his twenties, he worked as a lawyer. In his thirties, he was a member of the duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach’s privy council and oversaw the city of Weimar’s planning. In his forties, he served as a military observer during the French revolution. He was a great dialogist, and you can read his interviews in the classic book Conversations with Goethe.
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.
Never call yourself a polymath in public.
Specialism is one of the quickest and easiest ways to identify oneself. Spend all your time in a single domain and you will become a physical expression of it. You will also be provided with a sense of a community, lifestyle, history, industry, legacy, and maybe even an archetypal personality to accompany that activity: the jolly baker, the bitter prison guard, the tortured artist.
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.
Lonnie Johnson was born in 1949. As a boy, he was inspired by George Washington Carver, who transformed agriculture through the invention of crop rotation, and who helped popularize environmentalism. Johnson studied mechanical and nuclear engineering before working for the US Air Force, where he developed the stealth bomber. Later, at NASA, he cocreated the power source for the Galileo mission to Jupiter. Johnson also used his weapon-engineering skills to invent the Super Soaker water gun, one of the most popular water guns in the world, and a toy I personally enjoyed as a child. Soon after, he developed the N-Strike range of Nerf dart guns. He holds over one hundred patents, and in 2015 the Super Soaker was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.
Everyone is, on some level, a generalist. We all have many skills, including those we don’t identify. A person could choose to isolate one of these skills, study it, analyze it, and work to perfect it as a lifelong vocation, but in most cases, that probably isn’t necessary.
H. wakes, completes an extended hygiene routine, administers her dog’s arthritis medicine, performs a series of complicated yoga moves, and then cooks a meal. She writes emails in various styles, works in her garden, parents her child, and rides her bike to a job. At work, she conducts a series of hyper-specialized tasks involving jargon, technological understanding and knowledge she has acquired over many years. In the evening, she plays mah-jongg with friends, mends her torn shirt, navigates an interpersonal emergency with her husband, reads a novel, and teaches the waltz to her daughter. She has practiced this lifestyle for years and she is an expert at its many forking requirements.
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.
We consider writers to be the experts on language, but even the most accomplished writer will likely have written fewer words in their lifetime than even shy people speak aloud. (Average is about sixteen thousand words a day.)
Conversation is essential to most forms of work, but there is no title or degree for its adepts. This is true of some of the essential activities of our lives: useful, but not professional specializations that can be spun into gold.
Conversation is not only active; it also requires passive skills: an understanding of body language, facial expressions, and cultural references. The critic, psychotherapist, and scholar are all proficient at this kind of reception. In our own ways, we all refine our receptive abilities over decades, often without any dramatic expression of this skill. Each of us has an intimate relationship with a particular subject—basketball, theater, dirt bikes, reality television—and we quietly hone our senses to better experience the objects of our fascination.
This kind of engagement is the foundation of any active skill. All creation is fundamentally a form of reception. Making something usually requires far more attention than it does production, for both the audience and the maker. Living requires a network of invisible receptions and actions. We are all multitaskers.
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.”
To be specific: a generalist, as I’m defining one here, is a person who moves their attention fluidly across the spectrum of culture, rather than settling it into a fixed position. Usually, this means working, thinking, and acting in multiple fields of interest.
We have names for this person: the polymath, the Renaissance man, the universal human, the hyphenate, the interdisciplinarian. If we meet someone who does multiplex things, we need to use one of these words to denote this person’s unusual and unlikely behavior. They are an exception to the rule of specialism. If a generalist is successful, we regard them with alarm, unsure how someone arrives at such a life. If a generalist is unsuccessful, we might knowingly cluck at their foolish attempt to go against the grain. For these people, we use other terms, like dilettante or jack-of-all-trades—two descriptors that no generalist appreciates. That person is just another “jack-of-all-trades, master of none!” we say. But did we know that some scholars believe this line, written by Robert Greene about Shakespeare—a playwright, poet, actor—was also followed by the couplet “but oftentimes better than a master of one”? (I use “we” here because even I, as a generalist, am subject to prejudices against generalists.) We just plain dislike the notion that someone can be too many things. That would be unfair. You get one.
At first, dilettante simply meant “an admirer or lover of the arts.” These days it refers a person who can’t commit to a single path and who takes no pursuit seriously. Do various things and the result can only be scatterbrained mediocrity, right? Spread your energy too thin and you will progress slowly. It’s only logical.
“I am a dilettante,” Brian Eno said. “It’s only in England that dilettantism is considered a bad thing. In other countries it’s called interdisciplinary research.”
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.
Mastery is an illusion, a notion of a fictional purity that cannot be understood or measured in terms of time. Just look at those young savants who excel wildly after only a few years spent on their craft. For them, mastery cannot be the result of time plus work, as we all assume it is. In fact, maybe the newness of their skills is precisely what gives their work its value.
But these little wonders are exceptions, right? The rest of us have to dedicate our lives to something to achieve greatness, and anyone who doesn’t do this will likely be middling in their work. Most writers I know are immediately suspicious when an actor publishes a novel. We delight in calling the person a moonlighter. Literature is our territory, and the only way to live here is to put in the time and labor.
Rudolf Steiner was born in 1861. His work has been widely influential across many disciplines. He founded Waldorf education, an alternative form of learning that proliferates today in almost three thousand schools in more than sixty countries. He invented biodynamic farming, which is currently used on four hundred thousand acres spread across sixty countries; biodynamic food is found in many grocery stores. He invented a new art form called Eurythmy, and a philosophical belief system called Anthroposophy, which later inspired Karl König to create the Camphill Movement, a philosophy of residential care for the developmentally disabled. He designed seventeen buildings, wrote plays, and lectured internationally about his philosophies, which bridge science and spirituality. Steiner’s work cannot be reduced to any single description, and its breadth cannot be contained in this short biography.
In a specialist society, the champions are the prodigy, the genius, the savant, and the ideologue. These people embody single-minded achievement. Their success is born of specificity, and their stories make for good films: Citizen Kane, Ray, The Hours, The Aviator, The Queen’s Gambit, A Beautiful Mind, Good Will Hunting, Million Dollar Baby, Bird. The people in these stories are depicted as variations on a theme, and their biographies describe a nice, satisfying arc.
At first, we drool over the abilities of the prodigy, in whom the human ideal seems to be embodied. As their story unravels, we notice how such absorption starts resembling addiction. When the protagonist reaches their zenith, we see the inevitable tragedy of confirmation bias: the more time you spend on something, the more important you believe it to be—and the less important everything else becomes. The main character—a great pianist, chess player, mathematician, pole vaulter—has isolated themselves from the world, and by the end of their story we often understand that years of mono-dedication
have led to an imbalanced life, marked by mental illness and an undeveloped personality. If there’s a happy ending, it usually involves the person discovering a life outside their passion. In the worst circumstances, the final burnout is death.
When I was a young musician, the idea of virtuosity was intoxicating. Charlie Parker, Edith Piaf, Glenn Gould, Art Tatum, Nina Simone—these people seemed superhuman. Their music awed me with its complexity and speed, its evidence of hard work.
So in college, I specialized in music. I spent all my time thinking about it. When I wasn’t in class, I read biographies of my favorite jazz musicians. I practiced for eight hours a day and played shows on weekends. At night, as I fell asleep, I listened to symphonies on headphones, and sometimes I found myself dreaming in time signatures. When I ate, I analyzed the intervallic pitches of my chewing. When I had sex, I adjusted the syncopation of thrusts. I was drunk on the field of music, and I dedicated every moment of my life to accumulating more skill and knowledge.
After school, I felt the hangover. My body did not appreciate the specialized way I’d been treating it and I developed a chronic repetitive stress injury from my excessive practice. In my early twenties, as a professional touring musician, I found myself unable to let go of all the systems and rules I’d committed to my synapses. I’d trapped myself in a structure of good taste and correct harmony. If I played a note outside the decreed boundaries of canonical music—the parallel fifth!—an alarm began wailing in my mind and didn’t stop until I corrected my error. I’d purposefully walled myself off from anything outside this velvet prison, and now I couldn’t allow myself to see beyond it. These are the ridiculous mind games of the overeducated.
So I began the process of unlearning—Nicholas of Cusa calls it “learned ignorance”—and relinquished all the ideas I’d paid so much for, financially and otherwise. This took more time and required more patience than the original learning process had, and still every few years I discover some hidden spore of knowledge that has secretly been growing into opinions.
I relaxed my musical focus but continued to study in new directions. I discovered that if I learned with greater variation, I could mitigate this feeling of being imprisoned by knowledge. If I moved freely between bodies of knowledge, I could maintain equanimity rather than frothy-mouthed obsession. My mind could remain untethered. I could step outside a system and begin to see things from a wider, longer, slower, more perennial perspective.
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.
Even so, I’m occasionally seduced by a new ideology. After consuming my third book on a single topic, I feel that old compulsion rearing its head. Righteousness bubbles in my gut, certainty rises in my throat, and I have to reorient my attention before the addiction takes control.
As I’ve changed, so has the world. With the rise of the internet and other technological advancements, most musicians cannot afford to simply be impressive instrumentalists. Almost every musician I know is now skilled in mixing, recording, and mastering, and they are likely engaged with their own distribution and publicity through social media.
Twenty years ago, each of these tasks would have been delegated to a specialist. Now most artists are sovereign, whether they choose to be or not. Record labels expect this, and, for better or worse, they look for young artists who are able to address the full range of the industry’s many skills.
Wang Wei was born in 701 CE and began his artistic work early in life. He is considered one of the great writers of the Chinese quatrain. He spent a decade studying Chan Buddhism and used the natural world as a way to understand poetic reality. He wrote hundreds of poems, many of which have survived. He was well known throughout China for his delicate, magical landscape paintings, which still exist today. In his time, he was also considered a great musician, though there are no records of his music. He spent most of his life, however, as a politician, at the service of the Tang court. Sometimes politics served as the subject of his poetry. Later in life, he was captured by rebels of the An Lushan uprising, who forced him to join their rebellion.
Like many people, I worship focus. I might be addicted to it. Focus, as I understand it, is the one of most desirable states known to man. Some people call it “the flow state” or “being in the zone.” Many people take daily doses of drugs to remain in this state in perpetuity: caffeine, Ritalin, sugar, cannabis, nicotine, kratom.
The standard definition of success is single-minded work toward an increasingly specific goal. This can be true in the short term or the long term. In a day, a person focuses on a task; in a month, on a project; in a year, on a job; and over the course of a life, on a career.
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.
“Everything I learned in my life, I learned because I decided to try something new,” said David Lynch (musician, filmmaker, painter, lamp maker, sculptor, writer, actor, and lecturer, mostly on meditation).
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.
Specialism, on the other hand, offers an easily measured form of success. In fact, specialization usually defines a spectrum of success and failure.“Best” and “worst” can exist only when the boundaries of success have been narrowed to a single parameter: the best RBI hitter in baseball; the most dividends earned in a single day.
A completely specialized culture would be a pure meritocracy. Fields that could be measured would be favored, and those that evaded quantification—the arts, for example—would be irrelevant.
Miranda July was born in 1974. In the ’90s she recorded with punk bands, staged plays, performed radio dramas, and wrote fanzines. Soon she began releasing films, in which she often acted. She has completed three feature films, along with many short films and music videos. A few years after her first major film, she began publishing books, both fiction and nonfiction. She has released five books, including a novel and a widely loved story collection. She has developed an app and a pop-up charity shop. Over the last twenty years, she has also made performance art that has been featured in some of the most significant venues in the world. She once told me in an interview: “Everywhere I go, I’m more of a novice or an outsider than the other people in the field.”
Each field has its own hermetic lexicon with its own specialist speaker. To communicate between these segregated realms, translators are required, metaphorical polyglots able to speak multiple languages. These people can bypass the miscommunication that slows progress, working toward the collective goal of an increasingly improved world.
Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Maya Angelou, Avicenna, Benjamin Banneker, Jagadish Chandra Bose, Queen Christina of Sweden, Jean Cocteau, Nicolaus Copernicus, Jacques Cousteau, Marie Curie, Abbas ibn Firnas, Jamie Foxx, Benjamin Franklin, Buckminster Fuller, Imogen Holst, Howard Hughes, Aldous Huxley, Hypatia, Thomas Jefferson, Mae Jemison, Omar Khayyam, Paul Klee, Gottfried Leibniz, Tarquinia Molza, Maria Montessori, Elon Musk, Beatrix Potter, Prince, Socrates, Emanuel Swedenborg, Julie Taymor, Oprah Winfrey, Ban Zhao…
Despite these people’s multifarious contributions to culture, history tends to remember them as specialists. It’s easier. We all do this. As you read this list, whoever you recognized was probably reduced to a single accomplishment or vocation in your mind— but these people did not interpret their own lives that way.
Anthony Burgess, a writer celebrated for his novel A Clockwork Orange, was also an accomplished composer. He once wrote: “I wish people would think of me as a musician who writes novels instead of a novelist who writes music on the side.”
Sometimes history hides generalism to preserve a specialized agenda. Isaac Newton, a figure whom we consider the father of modern math, physics, and reasoned thinking, was also a dedicated alchemist. Alchemy, a generalist practice in itself, was a precursor to modern chemistry. It involves spirituality, myth, belief, and metallurgy, but its inclusion of belief stands in direct conflict with the scientific rationalism Newton now represents. Subsequent generations of historians and scientists buried Newton’s dedication to the occult, willfully ignoring the blow it deals to their obsessive, single-minded materialism. But Newton’s own records tell a different story. He wrote over a million words on alchemy in his lifetime, and his study of the subject helped inspire some of his most paradigm-shifting discoveries.
Richard Wagner is remembered as a composer, but he saw himself as something much broader. His aspiration was to use the form of opera to create what he called a Gesamtkunstwerk, a “total artwork,” that would be the universal, most generalist form of art. This work could address the full human capacity for expression in a single opus—through music, art, theater, narrative, costume, and philosophy.
A filmmaker must understand aspects of sound design, photography, storytelling, music, acting, props, environment, finance, writing, and dialogue. In this way, some jobs are naturally suited to the generalist. A skilled homemaker, for example, understands everything from cooking to cleaning to healing to sociology. Acting, too, is a fairly generalist vocation. The practice of writing, what I am doing right now, is extremely broad, without consistent subject matter, form, or even mediums.
Generalism can be an approach of the neophyte or of the seasoned worker. Some entry-level positions (assistant, secretary, intern) are, in fact, compilations of micro-jobs, and some high-level positions—
managers, CEOs, directors, business owners, presidents—are positions of vast, nonspecific oversight. Sometimes the highest perch has the widest perspective.
Shen Kuo was born in 1031. He spent the first part of his life as a highly appointed government official and military general. After being removed from office on an inflated charge, he wrote The Dream Pool Essays, a book that covered the many topics he studied independently throughout his life, including geology, movable type, astronomy, zoology, weaponry, irrigation, and music, to name just a few. He was also an art critic; he especially enjoyed paintings by Wang Wei. He served as the head official for the Bureau of Astronomy in China and designed new equipment for observing the cosmos.
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.
Specialism is a sensational gamble. Investing everything in a single asset is an impressive if volatile proposition; we all want to watch the spectacle of someone putting everything on the line. (Alternately, generalism is like a diversified portfolio: it’s safer. It’s the tortoise, not the hare.)
Some people transform this wager into a radical commitment to their work. Down the street from where I live, a deli makes exactly one type of Italian sandwich and has done so every day, without variation, for decades.
The artist On Kawara created almost three thousand paintings titled Today, on which he painted only one thing, in a uniform style, color, and font: the date he made the work. He did this for forty-eight years.
At the age of forty-one, the conceptual artist Lee Lozano began a boycott on speaking to women. She did not speak to another woman for the rest of her life.
As with any bet, specialism requires luck: What if you lose the capacity to do your work? What if you excel in a specialty that is unpopular?
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.
Pythagoras of Samos was born in 570 BCE. He is considered a philosopher, but his inquiries ranged across vast systems of knowledge. He discovered the relationship between musical intervals and mathematical ratios. He first identified the five geometric solids, the theory of proportions, and, likely, the earth’s spherical shape. He was one of the earliest Western practitioners of vegetarianism. He established a relationship between mystical reality and math that led to numerology as we understand it. He lectured on the immortality of souls and said he could recall past lives. His influence is immeasurable and spans art, science, and mystical practices. In his wake, he inspired two waves of cultish communities: Pythagoreanism and, a few hundred years later, Neo-Pythagoreanism. He famously remarked, “Do not take roads traveled by the public.”
I started drawing, writing, and making music when most other people do: as a child. I scribbled, plunked at the piano, played make-believe. As time went on, others stopped doing these things, but I enjoyed them, so I continued.
I worked at all these things, but it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I let go of a need to proclaim myself “a musician who does things on the side.” I didn’t actually view myself that way, but I felt obligated to present myself to the world with some kind of respectable clarity.
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.
Which one of your senses is your favorite?
Can a person have multiple children and love them all equally?
Yes, but maybe not all in the same way.
Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” For me, great days are great in their multiplicity, when I move purposefully from one compelling activity to the next. Each task refreshes the next. When I tire of music, I switch my attention to writing. I forget about whatever music I am making and enter into writing with a fresh perspective. The language center of my mind has been quiet for a few hours, while the auditory center—which is, in fact, in a different location in the brain—has been firing away.
Maybe this is because I am a millennial with an attention span the length of a scrolling finger. Novelty is important to me, and I don’t fight it. My interest is less in the quantity of time I spend on an activity than in the quality of that time. A moment of inspiration or a good twenty minutes of painting are better than a mediocre day. A few bursts of this kind of energy keep me sated. If I do this every day, I stay sharp and stave off the horror of burnout. In just the right dose, newness keeps the senses poised.
Kanye West was born in 1977. He studied English and visual art in school but went on to a career in music. He began as a producer, helping other artists behind the scenes, but soon began releasing his own music, which has taken a wide range of forms and invokes many styles. He has won countless awards and is one of the best-selling musical artists of all time. In his thirties, he started several clothing lines, including Yeezy Supply, and produced multiple full fashion lines accompanied by large-scale performances. He opened Fatburger restaurants in his hometown of Chicago and worked on a video game about his mother. In his forties, West began a church-like program called Sunday Service. He purchased a large plot of land in California to begin building a community. In 2020, he ran for president of the United States, part of the ongoing development of his public persona.
A generalist must engage with both sides of any argument: skepticism and belief, optimism and pessimism. So, for this essay, it would only be right to take a look at the dark side of generalism and the side effects of adopting it as a whole-life philosophy.
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.
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.
Few things are more torturous than making decisions, and a mind will do anything to avoid such a relentlessly complex activity. Adherence to these vague philosophies, as I see them, can certainly be used as an excuse for escaping commitment. As a generalist, I must stay vigilant against this kind of laziness of mind and instead allow many fierce, contrary ideas to exist at once.
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.
More complexity is not always better. A dish with too many flavors tastes like dirt. A mind scattered in too many directions is paralyzed by possibility.
Generalism is not a thing. It’s definitely not an ism or some kind of doctrine. The general approach defies the nature of ideologies, which are characterized by the limits they place on understanding the world. There is no system of generalism. The general philosophy is to love variety.
For this reason, generalists don’t exist—not in the way that, say, Marxists do—because they can’t identify as generalists. I can call myself intra-, cross-, multi-, inter-, and trans-disciplinary—which, for some, are all legitimate and distinct prefixes—but that does more to distinguish and alienate me from others than to connect me with a community. There is no lineage of generalists, as there is for microbiologists or flutists, because every generalist works with their own complex bouquet of interests.
Probably this whole essay is my attempt to give a sense of unity to my life. Maybe I have to write a manifesto on “the art of doing many things”because I fear that if our culture doesn’t have a catchy keyword for my role, I’ll just fade away. So here I am, reducing generalism to a single, branded snap, just like a specialist.
After all, generalists are, in moments, great specialists. Likewise, a deep specialist can approach their niche from an ever-growing number of perspectives. A man with a repetitive job can endlessly engage with his work from fresh angles. And, of course, it’s all relative. A single task looked at from another angle is a plentiful cornucopia of individuated micro-tasks.
Some long-term generalists focus exclusively on a single activity for a number of years before moving on to the next. Rather than doing many things simultaneously, they do them sequentially.
Pure generalism and pure specialism are just intellectual games. Our minds drift between unified oneness and individuality without ever settling into either. Binary thinking is for computers.
These two states of being are not roles we need to inhabit but rather nodes to be considered. One situation requires diligent focus, but another benefits from a more diffuse form of attention. Certain qualities of engagement can occur only when you do multiple things at once. This is the value of the glance.
Many singular-seeming accomplishments are generalist in nature. In fact, all professions are a series of subspecializations, even if we strive for the illusion of cohesion in everything.
This essay, for example, may give the impression of being a single continuous thought, but in actuality it was written in short bursts over several years. I wrote it using different mediums (notebooks, voice recordings, phone notes), often while half-focused on other things. At the most basic level, writing this document was also a marriage of disparate skills: from the manual skill of typing to the comprehension of English to a knowledge of the writing business. Any impression of cohesion here is not representative of the experience of making it, even though I certainly spent a lot of time trying to make it appear that way.
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.”
Hildegard of Bingen was born in 1098. She was a Benedictine abbess who founded several monasteries across Germany. She is often regarded as the founder of natural science and wrote lengthy works on herbs, stones, and medicine, which she used as a healer. Her theories discuss the balance of the humors, celestial events, and practical remedies for agricultural injuries. She is among the earliest known composers. Hers is one of the largest collections of extant medieval choral works, many of which are still performed today. She invented her own language, called Lingua Ignota, and wrote some of the first liturgical musical works with elements of dramatic theater. Historically, she is regarded as a mystical visionary, and much of her work came from her many ecstatic visions of the divine, which she chronicled in writing in three gorgeously illustrated tomes. She was canonized as a Catholic saint and was retroactively deemed a doctor of the church. As varied as her work was, she did it all for God.
Author and politician Aimé Césaire once wrote in a letter to communist leader Maurice Thorez: “I’m not going to confine myself to some narrow particularism. But I don’t intend either to become lost in a disembodied universalism… I have a different idea of a universal. It is a universal rich with all that is particular, rich with all the particulars there are, the deepening of each particular, the coexistence of them all.”
Generalism is not the opposite of specialism. It includes specialism. Everyone gets to experience both. Or maybe both approaches lead to the same place. Maybe the study of quantum physics brings a mind to the same conclusions as basketry. Maybe it’s like meditation: You can sit in open awareness and experience everything until you reach an unprejudiced understanding of life. Or you can unflinchingly focus on a single mantra for decades, repeating it with each breath, and as you plunge deeper toward a single infinite point, you discover that everything is already right there.