It took me many years to come to terms with what it means to be a generalist. The dictionary describes a generalist as one who is competent in several different fields or activities. For me, it’s a little more personal. Over the course of my life basically nothing has been hard for me to learn or pick up. Everything I’ve ever tried I’ve gotten the basics of relatively quickly. I don’t say this to brag or tout my incredible skills because it’s really not like that.
I was sitting with one of my mentors this summer and he was explaining to me that most people’s lives are lived one finger forward, pointed clearly in some direction. Doctors, musicians, and other specialized paths require this one finger forward approach to life. He then took out his hands and splayed all ten fingers as widely as possible and said “This is you.”At first I was caught off guard and perhaps a little offended when he said this but over the last few months the truth of his statement has resonated with me. I am a true generalist.
I love to learn new things and differing things. My knowledge is disparate, wildly uncorrelated, and yet so important. My experiences vary across the board. It’s been hard for me in my life to find people who really understand what it’s like to be me. Since I was 6 years old or so I have been a nerd, starting with Pokemon cards, then Yu-Gi-Oh! when I was 7, and finally Magic when I was 9, which I still play today. I also grew up in nature, as fully immersed in the reality of dirt and sticks as in the imaginary worlds of dragon-slaying and wizards.
As I got older, I embraced the world of “normal,” taking up sports and school work. I creeped up into the varsity world of sports in high school, eventually achieving MVP of my track team and becoming a captain the following year. This was a big achievement for me because it meant that other people my age understood something about me. Shortly after this it was announced that I had won a pretty huge scholarship for playing Magic in the amount of 20,000 dollars over four years. This was one of the most important moments of my life because it meant that following my passions was as likely to pay off as anything else in life, and probably more so. However, I didn’t tell anyone at my school because I was nervous they would judge me for having weird interests.
Once I got to college, my masquerade as a normal person continued as I picked up alcohol for the first time and immersed myself in the world of partying and classic college. Over the last three years I have slowly been drifting back towards a place where I can feel safe in my own unique, generalist, and wholly different interests. The last few months have really helped me to understand how important it is that I embrace who I am and live all parts of my life fully. I finally feel comfortable sharing my passions about nerdy things with all kinds of people and also expressing my appreciation for a beer after a long day. A large part of growing up is about returning to the comfort with self we all have as young children.
To leave you (perhaps you’re a generalist as well) with a final metaphor: imagine that your life is a blank canvas. I’ll use my life as an example. As I’ve grown and experienced things, those things have started to fill up space on my canvas. Each aspect and experience is a different bubble on the canvas. Let’s say Magic or track or traveling. As each experience balloons outward, they start to overlap. When two bubbles overlap, it’s not that exciting but think about when ten bubbles overlap, when each splayed finger finds its way back to my hands. In this moment, the generalist has found a unique place that has never been reached before. The generalist’s gift is to understand that everything is connected and search the world far and wide for those connections. It’s our jobs as those who can see the big picture to pull together so many disparate ideas and create something new.