Generalist

Beemer put up a thoughtful comment in response to my last post. To quote one part:

Smart kids, especially the ones who go places like MIT, often get this idea that they need to be Einstein or Newton, which is frankly silly. Because that’s not how the world works — it’s the total contribution of everyone, in a whole bunch of different dimensions, not just superstars in narrow but visible fields.

I’m certainly guilty of this. It’s easy to believe when you’re a smart kid in a small pond that you have what it takes to be a superstar. And it’s even still conceivable when you’re at MIT, because you’re surrounded by superstars. And it’s not like they blow you out of the water with their intelligence – you hang out with them, have interesting conversations, things like that. Part of what distinguishes the superstars is just staying productive, as I mentioned in that last post. But I think there’s another part as well, which is the ability to focus on a narrow field.

One of the things that eventually got me to drop out of grad school was that I didn’t care enough about physics to make it my life. My fellow students spent morning, day and night studying physics (true story: our quantum field theory prof told us that we’d have to spend three or four hours a night studying, plus weekends if we wanted to keep up. I didn’t. Most did). We’d be out to dinner on a Friday evening, and they’d be talking physics. And I just didn’t have that level of commitment. There were so many other things to think about or talk about.

But in this age of increasing specialization, it really is a full-time job to become an expert in a field, to keep up with all the latest journals, to practice your chosen profession, etc. To become a world-renowned expert, you have to pretty much sacrifice everything else in your life to your field. David Foster Wallace touches on that in his descriptions of the tennis prodigies in both Infinite Jest and the essay titled “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness” in his book of essays. And I’m not willing to make that commitment. To anything.

I think part of my reluctance is that the learning curve levels out so fast. Beemer once pointed out to me that it’s always more exciting taking intro classes, because you’re getting exposed to a whole new way of looking at the world and a whole new vocabulary. Once you get past that, then it’s a whole lot of slogging while you pick up all the nuances and details that only matter to other practitioners in the field. And then it’s the focused rat race I mentioned earlier.

I get excited about learning new things and being exposed to new ideas. And staying in one field doesn’t really offer that opportunity, because of the levelling of the learning curve. Physics is a good example – after you take mechanics, electromagnetism and quantum mechanics in your first two years of college, what happens? You take them again as upperclassmen, exploring more nuances. And then again as grad students. Over and over again. Sure, you’re learning more details, and more refined mathematical techniques, but you’re not learning anything fundamentally new.

I’ve mentioned it before, but my ideal job is one where I scan results in a whole bunch of fields and try to figure out how to synthesize them. Constant stimulation. I’m not sure I have the self discipline to sit down and learn stuff like that, unfortunately – there’s so much stuff that I’ve thought about learning at least the intro-level stuff, like sociology or biochemistry, or even economics, that I’ve never followed up on. But it’s in the right ballpark. This blog and my reading list which spans a bunch of areas is my feeble attempt to move in that direction.

Once I get to the point where I’m modestly competent at something, I’m bored. This has been true throughout my life – I have an attention span of about 2-3 years on anything. I burned out on college bad by my senior year. Grad school? I lasted three years. My first job? Two and a half years. I’ve been in my current job four years, but my role has changed a few times in that time. This is my sixth year in the chorus (it took longer because chorus only meets once a week) and I’ll probably quit in the next couple years, because I’ve gotten the routine down and want to move on to something else. I’m still in the learning stage for frisbee, because I’ve only been doing that for a year or so, so it’s still a challenge and a lot of fun. I need to find new challenges for myself on a pretty regular basis. Although I’m still considering what the next one should be (yes, folks, I know your answer is “dating!”)

So that’s my personal choice. I’d rather be modestly competent in a bunch of different things, with a broad but shallow knowledge base, rather than become the total expert in one thing. It fits me better personality-wise. Or so I tell myself. When I’m feeling more cynical, I say that it’s just because I’m lazy and unwilling to put in the effort to be really good at something, instead relying on my native talents to get me up to the mediocre level. But every now and then, it twinges. I want to be a superstar. I do. But I’m not willing to sacrifice the rest of my interests to do it.

I’m not really sure what the point of this post is. Just to warn y’all, and as you’ve probably already observed, this round of posts will probably be fairly introspective. Part of that whole midlife crisis is thinking a lot about who I am, what I do, and my role in the world. So I’ll be writing it up and posting it here, but I don’t really expect anybody other than me to be interested.

P.S. I was sharing some of these theories with a coworker today, especially with regard to the shape of the learning curve, and he pointed out that certain fields differ on the shape of the learning curve. Some fields tend to be knowledge-based – his example was biology or medicine. Medical school is basically a whole ton of memorization. It’s a linear learning curve – the longer you spend learning stuff, the more you know, and the more competent you are. Fields like physics or mathematics tend to be more concept-based; once you grasp the theoretical system, you can understand the rest and contribute. In support of his distinction, he noted that Nobel Prizes in Medicine often reward scientists’ work done at a relatively advanced age, whereas Nobel Prizes in Physics often rewards work done while a young scientist or even a grad student. It’s an interesting thought. I wasn’t quite sure how to tie it in to the rest of my post, so I left it for a postscript.

8 thoughts on “Generalist

  1. Wow – not many comments around here. And I’m 5 years late to the party.

    Found your blog while trying to remember the title to a book about how to make a career as a generalist, or something along those lines.

    This post is scarily like what I’m going through currently, except my max job length is 2 years and I only lasted for a year in Neuroscience graduate school.

    Anyway, kind of a pointless comment, except to show you that other people are reading your blog. Which you could get from web statistics.

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