Da Vinci: A True Generalist
Written by Aaron Bilodeau
Does the idea of never evolving as a person and pursuing the same interests, education and career for the rest of your life make you want to vomit? Don’t feel crazy, guilty or alone. The idea that we are meant to find our “one true passion” or manifestly-designed, singular purpose is a myth.
Being multi-skilled, innovative, knowledge-seeking, exploratory and multi-purposeful is our purpose- we are generalists.
It may not feel this way because humans are inherent generalists being force-fed specialist ideals. As specialists, people have become rewarded and revered for narrow expertise and massive commitments to singular pursuits. In fact, when someone tries to validate their level of proficiency in something, they often start with describing how long they have been doing it for.
If we are honest, just because we have been doing something for a long time does not mean we are getting better at it. We are often only following the paradigm that says we need to find something to do for a profession, education and even a personal identity and stick with it for years: maybe even a lifetime.
If you are following the specialist paradigm, and it just doesn’t feel natural, maybe you are on to something…
The idea of being a specialist is relatively new to human life. As highly adaptable omnivores, humans have successfully inhabited a plethora of landscapes and environmental conditions for millennia. Our ancestors possessed multiple skills and knowledge in many areas. The tendency for exploration, adaptability, innovation and varying skill sets has allowed humans to evolve and thrive throughout the world.
What may be considered the most prominent human strength-to have a functioning knowledge in many areas-has been suppressed in us.
The loss of our generalist nature brings detriment to our personal lives and the world around us. Our jobs, education and lives at large have become mechanistic and repetitive. The expectation of the length of our vocational and educational commitments brings depression, discontent and complacency. It defies our generalist background to be forced to repeat many of the same mindless activities over and over. We thrive on acquiring new skills and new experiences and doing so in various ways.
As a society, when we become specialists we also fail to synthesize knowledge or connect the dots between one issue and another. People who can bring disparate ideas together are often the best innovators and problem solvers. Look around and you will see most people living myopically, with no understanding of how their actions are affecting their lives or the world around them.
None of this can change until we start giving ourselves the freedom to be generalists. And becoming a generalist starts by becoming a committed learner. Explore, better yet, devour new subjects and skills. Become a synthesizer by seeing connections in not so obvious places. Most importantly, consider how you learn. Remember, it’s ok to take what you need from a subject or skill to become proficient and move on. You don’t have to read the whole book or watch the whole documentary or finish the whole course if you got what you need. Only you can determine this.
Remember, you are allowed to have a rigorous curiosity and functioning knowledge in many areas. You do not have to settle for a narrow life path. You are encouraged to be human; to be human is to be a generalist.