You've successfully subscribed to lost en thought
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to lost en thought
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
life / generalist / eudaimonia / success

In defense of the generalist life

. 10 min read .

The path to greatness

If you really want to be great at something. you have to truly care about it. If you want to be great in a particular, area, you have to obsess over it.
A lot of people say they want to be great, but they are not willing to bear the sacrifices necessary to achieve greatness. They have other concerns, whether important or not, and the spread themselves out. Thats; totally fine.
After all, greatness is not for everybody. — Paul Graham

What PG is saying is that the more activities one chooses to pursue, the more they are forced to spread out their time and as a result, the less time they spend on a single pursuit. With that, the chances of great achievement drop.

The more directions, the lower the achievement. via Oliver Emberton

The person who is a back-end developer all their life will probably reach a higher level of mastery and thus career achievement, than the one who transitions from a developer to a barista to a painter to a banker.

The man who is obsessed with kinetic sculptures will probably reach higher skill levels than the one who loves knitting but also enjoys skiing, gardening, scuba diving and baking.

We are conditioned to seek to be extraordinary. The people that are socially rewarded nowadays are the ones at the top: the most famous, the fastest, the strongest, the richest. And so most of us seek a life of few directions to maximize for achievement.

[...] having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.
Think about what you want out of this life, and recognize that there are many kinds of success.
Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it's to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.
You'll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you're doing. — Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbes

We keep climbing in the pursuit of being extraordinary.

Extraordinary.

But there is another way to lead an extraordinary life. Instead of optimizing for greatness (depth), we can optimize for variety (breadth) — a more calm, rich, fulfilling definition of 'extraordinary'.

Instead of living a specialist life, there is a less traveled path: the generalist life.

The critics will say:

“A jack of all trades is a master of none.”

But that isn’t the whole story. Here’s the original full quote:

“A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.”

My dream of the good life

Here's what would be a good life for me:

  • Adopt many kiddos with my partner and homeschool them
  • Travel while they are young and show them the world
  • Become a good writer. Publish weekly
  • Freedive to 40m. Freefly with a 150 rig
  • Become a great Indie Product Manager and help others do the same
  • Teach myself about gardening. Grow a little herb and veggie garden
  • Build a little chalet up in the mountains of Cyprus
  • Start a school for life rebels/generalists
  • Produce, film and post-process quality mini-documentaries
  • Cook a solid meal, a good bbq and make a nice cocktail
  • Teach myself how to design sweet UI interfaces
  • Propagate the ideas of ethical capitalism
  • Setup a little coffee shop/co-working space with my family / friends

None of this is an extraordinary achievement on its own compared to today's standards of 'grand success'. Intermediate freedivers can freedive to 40m, thousands own coffee shops, tens of thousands of parents homeschool, hundreds of thousands have access to a little mountain chalet, millions can cook a really nice meal. What would be extraordinary is being able to have a life where I can pursuit -and hopefully achieve- most of these modest 'successes'.

What an extraordinary life that would be...
What a tragedy it would be, to have been given a a lifetime of possibilities, doors and opportunities and explore only the tiniest of fractions of them.

Success is such a balance thing. I have a couple of male friends that run their own successful business, but they scaled it back in order to be lifestyle business and handed off a lot of responsibility to their employees. They pay them enough to be able to say ‘you deal with all the junk in exchange for never calling me on the weekends’ so both these guys work 10-20h a week and somehow their business keep getting better because of this hands-off approach. They both have kids and they have really good relationships with their wife and semi-adult children.
They are in good shape. They do a lot of adventures. They always say yes if I invite them to do something. So they have managed to combine all of these dimensions of what people want in a care free way and they are not overly focused on any one of them which allows them to be extremely fun people to be around. So this is my definition of success. Theres a lot more to happiness than being maxed out in a single dimension. – Mr. Money Moustach on Tim Ferriss Podcast

F*ck greatness

In the pursuit of that I will never be 'special', 'outstanding', an 'expert', the 'best' or a 'master' at any field.
I will never be the best mum, an outstanding skydiver, a master videographer or an expert pit-master.
I am aware that probably none of my pieces of work will have the potential to be of significance on a global scale or affect the lives of hundreds of thousands.
I know that I will probably never be very successful by the current society's norms.

The sacrifice to get any of the above -implanted-by-society- definitions of greatness thought is to abandon the life I deem the good life. The good life for me is a quiet, modest free existence of balance, growth and exploration of as many as life's flavors as possible.

I believe we are all built that way. We are all built as complex, rich, curious individuals. We are built generalists. We are not built to function according the current standards of society. We are not built to be in a perpetual competition against others. Yet that is how we are molded from a young age all the way to our deathbed. We were taught that if we are generalists, we are unfocused, lost, wasting time, carried by the wind, unambitious.

I have the upmost respect for people who devote their entire life in service of their family.
I get insanely touched by people who live and breathe their art.
I have the most heartwarming feelings for people who spend their entire career devoted to the pursuit of a noble mission.
I find mastery as an extremely attractive characteristic in humans.

But it is not for me. I double Diane Ackerman:

I don’t just want to live the length of my life. I would like to live the width of it as well.

"After all, greatness is not for everybody" as per Paul Graham. Indeed, it definitely is not for me. F*ck greatness.

The components of the generalist life

The life generalist is a kid at heart that is guided by curiosity and passion. They are not a life-specialist but instead explore wide. They are not driven by status -how can one measure status if the game is so unique to each person- by instead by self-expression. The life of the generalist is rich in experiences and rich in emotions.

The life generalist knows that they evolve non-stop and so they do not obsessively commit to any given goal. As a result they are willing to change directions at any given point to follow their curiosity at the time.

The generalist life has two components and a catalyst: Variety, Flux & Curiosity. Variety refers to the number of pursuits one can have. Flux refers to the tendency to change pursuits that one focuses on often. Curiosity is the oil to the system. What makes everything possible.

Component#1: Variety

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, coon a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects." — Robert A. Heinlein

Or as per Naval:

“At some level, all humans are broad. We’re all multivariate but we get summarized in pithy ways in our lives and at some deep level, we know that’s not true.[...]"

I like the model of life that the Ancients had the Greeks the Romans right where you would start out and when you're young you're just like going to school then you're going to war then you're running a business then you are supposed to serve in the senate or the government then you become a philosopher this sort of this arc to life where you try your hand at everything.

Everyone should just be able to do everything. I don’t believe in this model anymore of trying to focus your life down on one thing. You’ve got one life. Just do everything you’re going to do. — Naval Ravikant

Variety respects that we are multivariate creatures so a life built around a handful of pursuits is a missed opportunity of tasting life's flavors and of exploring all the layers of our selves.

We can witness variety in the micro scale of a week: Jeremy might be trying to balance a job, a side-project, swimming, boxing, learning how to cook and participating in a book club all at the same time. So a life generalist could be a person doing a lot of things at the same time throughout their life.
We can also witness it in a more macro scale: Natasa might have only a handful of pursuits going on like her job as an architect, stretching classes and baking but over the years she might be changing 5 careers and 10 hobbies. So a life generalist could be a person doing a few things at the same time but in the long run they do change course and experience veriety.

The cost of exploring in breadth is of course the inability to discover one's limits in depth. We might be an above average painter and squash player but probably not an outstanding one.

Component#2: Flux

"We are brought up with this idea that our lives are linear. You are not committed to a single course. You can change course, you can create and recreate your life." — Sir Ken Robinson

Of course life and our own psyches are in flux by definition. If we keep our finger on the pulse, we will keep discovering parts of ourselves that are emerging and others that are dying out. Not many people are paying attention to it and even less are willing to change courses often. The life generalist is willing to do both. They are tuned to that life frequency and ares willing to listen and follow their bliss. Life thus acquires a sense of seasonality.

On the micro level we can witness such flux weekly. Ulan might be going from one week playing tennis to the next one going hardcore on wakeboarding.
On the macro level, flux can happen every few years. Kathy might be going from a year of devotion to triathlon to a year of intense focus on learning how to  grow vegetables. Bram might make a 90 degree turn from their software engineer career to picking up UI design or a 180 to going around the world on a train while freelancing as a copywriter.
On a very macro level, Mahima might decide to devote 3 years to starting a business with her buddy while traveling around Latin America, 5 years to writing a book while having a job at a coffee shop, then another 5 raising her newborn twins.

The sacrifice of flux is mastery. We won't square up to the best of any field and will be forced to continuously go through the strenuous journey of starting anew. Sometimes though it can pay off. "The best builders rarely stay in their lane. Instead, they find new opportunities to cross-pollinate their learning across different problems, roles, and industries" said Brianne Kimmel.

Curiosity

Curiosity is the fuel of the generalist life. Without curiosity, variety and flux cannot exist.

Curiosity is the seed of passion. And passion is the prerequisite in finding one's 'element'. Being in one's element is a magic state . It turns an activity that might be otherwise exhausting into a spiritually uplifting one. They make time fly and the world outside blur.

For some that might be skiing, knitting sweaters, gardening, their career as a corporate lawyer, writing historical novels, building a company, cooking for their family, fireside chats with good friends or all of the above.

Finding and being in one's element it is - without sounding too fluffy- the best use of your 'gift' for the world. For the specialist, the definition of being on your element is quite narrow while for the generalist it is quite broad.


Welcome to the generalist life.

The generalist life is not a life of distraction nor a life of being pushed by the wind. For some of us out there it is the very essence of a life well lived.

One of my most important pursuits in life is to reject what is expected of me and  lead a generalist life. I am compiling all the tactics in the generalist life playbook. I really want people to know that it is an option and I want to show that it can be -for some of us- a hell of a good one!

In a world that promotes the extraordinary, generalists - tough extraordinary in their own way- are invisible. Because our culture does not celebrate generalists, they are probably hiding in plain sight.

In my pursuit of promoting the generalist life, I want to find the others. I want to find the generalists out there. I want to talk to them, I want to hear their stories, I want to learn, I want to connect.

If you are one of them, please do join this list to help us find each other and do say hello on Twitter!