On Dilettantism

I just wrote a long comment over at Ei-Nyung’s post about the positive aspects of being a dilettante. As my first comment on that post states, I’m obviously biased as I post under the title of “Unrepentant Generalist”. But I figured I’d include my comment here as well, since it’s a recurring theme in my life.

I should note that I stole the term synthesist from John Brunner’s book Stand on Zanzibar, as described in this blog post.

The problem with becoming a master and an expert in a field is that to do so, you have to think like the people in that field. You have to learn the jargon, you have to embed yourself in the mindset of that field to the point where you can’t conceive of the world in a different way.

But once you reach that point, how does anybody else benefit from your mastery? You can’t communicate it to others, because the level of jargon is so high and the required knowledge base is so large that anybody who hasn’t spent three years studying the field can’t keep up.

So how do these benefits get applied? It takes somebody who can understand the broad strokes of the research, and figure out appropriate contexts for their use. The dilettante/synthesist/manager takes the expert’s knowledge and figures out how it can best be applied.

To ground this in my experience, my strength as a software engineer was never my coding. I’m a terrible coder. But I could understand what my users wanted, and get them something resembling that. I’ve worked with many software developers who were far more expert at coding and software design, but who couldn’t deliver anything useful. It was precisely because they were experts that they were not able to get in a user’s mindset. But if I got involved as an intermediary, I could translate the user requirements into terms the developers understood, and then we could benefit from their coding expertise.

Another example. Leper once told me a story of going to a seminar when he was in grad school in materials science. It was a seminar of a slightly different sub-branch of materials science than his own. The seminar was discussing this problem that had been holding up their research for years. Leper was like “Um, guys, we figured out how to deal with that years ago in our subfield.” Because it required so much effort to keep up in their narrow subfield, nobody had even had a chance to look at this closely related subfield to realize the problem was already solved.

So that’s the role I feel that the dilettante plays – they provide the network to communicate between the experts.

2 thoughts on “On Dilettantism

  1. My thought about it in a comment on someone else’s blog the other day was: monoculturists are productive in this really obvious way. Cross-pollinators are equally important, but less visible.

    Heck, just look at all the time and effort organizations spend on trying to eliminate “stovepiping” and you’ll realize how important it is.

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