The generalist gets a bad wrap and sure, a lot of it is warranted. When we think of a generalist we often think of someone who is stumbling through life, flitting from interest to interest, without truly sticking with any one thing.
While this can be great fun, it doesn’t get you very far in accomplishing big goals or tackling large problems. You become a useful tool for experts to wield. This is exactly why every generalist needs to be a master or what I call a Master Generalist.
The Master Generalist captures the best of both worlds, which means they are well-equipped to thrive in the information drenched, increasingly complex world we live in today. The generalist piece of the Master Generalist, is easier to achieve, but how do you become a master? And more importantly, why do you need to be one?
Let’s first understand how you can get there.
Become who you are by learning who you are.Pindar, Greek Poet
icasso is sitting in the park, sketching. A woman walks by, recognizes him, runs up to him and pleads with him to draw her portrait. He’s in a good mood, so he agrees and starts sketching. A few minutes later, he hands her the portrait. The lady is ecstatic, she gushes about how wonderfully it captures the very essence of her character, what beautiful, beautiful work it is, and asks how much she owes him.
“$5,000, madam,” says Picasso. The lady is taken aback, outraged, and asks how that’s even possible given it only took him 5 minutes. Picasso looks up and, without missing a beat, says: “No, madam, it took me my whole life.”
Several years ago I picked up Robert Greene’s book titled Mastery. It was an exploration of masters throughout history and covered the live’s of many great figures. I was in a hotel in Denver at the time, consulting on some project, but that night I couldn’t put the book down. What most interested me were the stories of masters that he used for examples of this level of accomplishment.
The funny thing was that most of these masters, at least in my eyes, were perfect examples of generalists or polymaths or renaissance men, whichever term you prefer. They were all known for doing many amazing things. The profiles included Leonardo Da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and many more.
Despite the title of the book, it was just as much about generalists or Master Generalists as it were. The following excerpt from the book made this clear:
“all of us must possess different forms of knowledge and an array of skills in different fields, and have minds that are capable of organizing large amounts of information. The future belongs to those who learn more skills and combine them in creative ways.” Excerpt from Mastery by Robert Greene.
This doesn’t sound like an individual focused solely on specialization. Mastery is a core component for every generalist and here are the three steps to achieve it.
1. Pick Your Skill
What is the thing you want to master? This is the ultimate question and often the most difficult to answer. Do you want to be a designer, a writer, a coder, an artist, an entertainer, a craftsmen, and so on and so forth.
You have to pick something, one thing, at least to start with. There’s a lot of advice in terms of how to go about this. Some say you must find your passion or life’s task, but that approach has become jaded for me.
A lucky few of you may have a cut and dried passion and that’s amazing, but chasing it down or waiting for it to present itself is not an option if you don’t. Instead you need to find something that interests you, that is valuable to the world not only today, but the foreseeable future, and run with it.
Why? Because passion may just be more like a chicken and egg situation than we think. When we get good at something, when we have confidence and complete command over any skill, we start to enjoy it. We start to develop a passion for it. This is the other way to discover your passion: create it.
Either way, you need to pick a skill to master.
2. Create Your Apprenticeship
Once you have chosen, it’s time to create an environment that allows you to fully immerse yourself in that domain. You need teachers and resources that can help you learn what you need to know.
This is where mentors come into play. Having a teacher that you can apprentice for greatly increases your ability to achieve master. Having someone that has that wealth of knowledge accessible to answer questions and correct mistakes is invaluable.
Unfortunately, mentors aren’t just lying about, waiting to teach people, so you may have to get creative. Use school, books, podcasts, whatever is accessible to create an environment that allows you to live, eat, and sleep your new endeavor.
It will take long hours and repetitive tasks, but eventually you’ll learn everything your mentor has to teach you. After you put in the work, you’ll finally be ready for the next step.
3. Go Beyond Mastery
There will come a time when you will surpass your mentor. When he or she has nothing more to teach you. This isn’t the end though, this is an opportunity to go beyond that mastery. To evolve it and build on top of it. To make it your own.
This is where the Master Generalist comes back into play. You can start to connect the dots of your knowledge and explore new domains and skills to supplement your understanding. The most important point is that mastery is not the end, it is only the beginning.
I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who had practiced one kick 10,000 times.Bruce Lee
Becoming a master is within reach, but why bother? What is the real value of having that level of expertise? What is the payoff from thousands of hours of focus on a single subject? There are more than a few.
Mastery is your calling card.
Benjamin Franklin was a lot of things: writer, revolutionary, politician, inventor, the list goes on. So how did the great generalist introduce himself to others? Simply as a printer. Nothing more, nothing less. Franklin was certainly a master at printing, working on newspaper printing for years, but he also did much more. Why did he leave it at that?
It gave him grounding, a clear place in the world in terms of who he was and what he offered. It was a signal, as much for the external world, as it was for the internal one. Especially for those with diverse interests, this is essential.
The fact of life, is that people will judge you based on your outward appearance. You can embrace your diverse interest and allow them to paint a picture based on what they see (which is often wrong) or you can control the narrative and guide the conversation. One of the benefits of mastery is the clear signal it sends in terms of who you are.
It is by no means all you have to offer, but it makes life easier in terms of your place in the world. Everything else can sprout from there.
Mastery fosters meaning.
As I touched on earlier, passion can be as much developed as it can be discovered. Becoming great at something, brings its own benefits.
In fact, much of what we enjoy in work is the ability to have autonomy, to get recognition, and to find meaning. These all come from mastery in a skill, the meaning comes from doing the work.
Most say meaning should be there from the beginning, but there’s something to say about being good at what you do. It becomes a sense of pride, something you can hang your hat on. Everyone wants to see the value in their work, to believe it means something. Mastery is one of the few surefire ways to experience that type of connection with what you do.
Mastery garners respect.
Becoming the best of the best also comes with a healthy dose of recognition. There is instant credibility that comes from reaching this level of achievement, which comes with its own perks.
Not only do you get recognized by others in your field, but also those outside of it. When you are in this elite company, you tend to meet others that are also at the top of their game, whatever domain they may be in.
This instantly offers you ample opportunity to explore new ideas and collaborate in interesting ways that are simply not accessible to those without similar credentials.
Mastery teaches discipline.
It’s not easy to achieve mastery. It takes hours upon hours of time. You’ll get bored and tired and want to quit repeatedly. If you can stick it out though, you learn something else that is incredibly valuable: the ability to do hard work.
The discipline it takes to achieve mastery is no small feat. Whether it takes 10,000 hours or 100,000 hours, the road is long, but when you do it once, you’re empowered to do it again.
Much like any other skill, being able to become a master in one domain, means that you are capable of the mental and cognitive load to do so again. It’s a skill that most don’t possess, but can serve as a multiplier on what you have already achieved.
Once you learn to master something, you can use that work ethic on everything.
Mastery is great but even that is not enough. You have to be able to change course without a bead of sweat, or remorse.Tom Peters
Mastery is a vital ingredient, but I believe that it is the intersection of being a master and generalist that provides maximum value. There is a symbiosis between the two ways of thinking that support and reinforces one another.
Being one alone can be great, but doing both brings you one step closer to some of the most influential figures in history. Those that deal with complex problems, have big ideas, and make disruptive progress.
Walking the line between master and generalist isn’t easy, but it is what makes the path worthwhile. Start with mastery and grow from there.