On Being a Generalist
I’ll never forget the moment when my poetry professor called me out in front of the class for using “bird” in a poem without specifying what kind of bird it was.
I learned at least two things:
- Being too general can be bland, uninspiring, or even wrong and disrespectful
- I’m a generalist
So, what’s a generalist to do?! The only topics I’ve ever gone deep on are organizational life, relationships, the Enneagram, and cooking. And I’m a generalist even in those, always looking for broadly applicable wisdom instead of detailed instructions. (Those of you who used to follow my cooking blog may remember my recipes, often with phrases like, “Eyeball it”).
Recognizing my tendencies has helped me know what to say “yes” to, and definitely helped me with my “no’s.” A few other practices and mantras I’ve picked up:
Keep a list of specialists handy. For myself and for my clients, it’s really important to know when I am out of my depth or have strayed out of my lane. On my list are therapists, resume writers, eating disorder specialists, lawyers, diversity trainers, bookkeepers, HR consultants. Thank goodness for all those folks who specialize in things. Sometimes that is the only thing that will help.
The interaction is the inspiration. I often don’t know what I know until an interaction brings it out of me. I’ve learned to trust this. I’ll be with a client, they will be talking to me about employee retention, and all of the sudden I remember something I know about that topic or refer to a book or article I’ve read. I don’t need to carry all my generalist knowledge around with me—I can trust that it will appear when I need it.
I am freed up to focus on energy and connections. Because I’m not a specialist who’s looking to use a specific tool, I can focus on other things. I can focus on how a group or organization feels. I can notice what is said or unsaid, I can sit with silence or awkwardness or unknowing. I can look for the wisdom in the group and let it emerge instead of making recommendations.
Be quiet or be curious when I don’t know something. Oh boy. This one is harder for me. My sister or Mom probably have lots of stories about me being a know-it-all, confidently dispersing my generalist observations when I have no business doing so. In the age of armchair politics (or armchair economics or sociology or ….) this is especially tempting. I’m helped when I keep my sharing close to my own experience. It turns out this makes for better relationships, too.
Wherever you are today and whatever you’re doing, whether you are a specialist or a generalist, whether you are leading a large organization or a sole proprietor, I hope you are on a path to more knowledge about yourself and more compassion for yourself. If you ever need help with that, I know a person.