Nov 9, 2020

Generalist or Specialist?



Yesterday, this thought flashed in my mind while I was pondering over certain things - "Be a generalist student and a specialist teacher".

There's this classic debate that's been going on for decades - "Should I be a generalist or a specialist?". I've been gravitating more towards being a generalist, as I'm curious to learn about a wide range of subjects. I'm yet to read the popular book "Range" by David Epstein that talks about the benefits of taking a generalist approach. It's on my reading list and I hope to get to it soon.


Why do I prefer to be a generalist? 

  • Life is too short to go deep into just one single area of interest. As you grow older, your interests start to change
  • When there is curiosity, it is best to ignite it by reading about the subject, researching and talking to people about the same.
  • By being interested in multiple subjects, you can cross-reference the ideas from each other.
  • Sustaining interest levels on a single topic for a long time is a big challenge for me.


Having said that, I also understand that if we are still learning, if our understanding is still evolving, it is best we don't teach or preach to a wider audience.


In Albert Einstein's words, 

"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."

Teaching is considered the most effective way to learn a subject better. If the intention to teach is to learn effectively, then we can share our learnings with a close friend or a family member and see if the way we explain it to them helps them understand the topic.


But teaching to a larger audience on a subject in which our understanding is still evolving leads to a lot of repercussions. 


  • The audience will easily be able to spot the contradictions. As our understanding evolves, what we believed to be true a few weeks back might undergo a shift, which is perfectly normal.
  • When students have a doubt or need clarification, it becomes difficult to answer them with clarity of thought. We start to fumble. Our body language and vocal expression would clearly show that we are not thorough with the subject. This breaks the trust of the audience.
  • Without going deeper, spending adequate time and effort in researching a subject and trying out the ideas ourselves for a good amount of time, we wouldn't be able to make an impact. It might end up confusing the audience more than being helpful.


This thought - "Be a generalist student and a specialist teacher" seems to be in alignment with the T model of learning, where we go deeper on a specific subject, build expertise and practice that gives us the clarity to teach others and at the same time, develop curiosity over a wide range of subjects.


Did this post resonate with you? Are you a generalist or a specialist? Do share your thoughts in the comments below.

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