Repost: Specialist Envy

This is a slightly expanded version of a very old post of mine. I have even more reason these days to understand why feeling this way is silly. I still feel this way.

I am not a specialist. I’m a generalist and a good one.

My primary skill is learning. I break unfamiliar tasks down quickly and optimize and mechanize processes. I read material aimed beyond my knowledge because I can mostly fill in background from what’s implied as well as what’s stated, and I know how to spot what I’m missing and have to look up. I synthesize and extrapolate ridiculously well.

Drop me into unfamiliar chaos, and I start tidying, building a coherent whole from the scattered pieces, even while my hindbrain screams in panic that the task is impossible. I take complicated projects from beginning to end. I come out having learned more, and the projects come out just fine. Sometimes they come out better, because I add something no one else would have thought something like this needed.

I do some of everything, and I do it well, if not outstandingly. It’s just what I do.

But oh, I must admit to a bit of the generalist’s envy of specialists. I sit down with someone who knows their field inside and out and I feel like an unschooled child. Following along suddenly seems like faking it. Not having that kind of command of anything, I feel just a wee bit useless. I know myself to be a dilettante and wonder whether everyone else knows too.

I know that I’ll never be a specialist. I don’t have the comfort of helplessness, though. I can’t tell myself that I couldn’t be a specialist. The way I learn, I certainly could. It would only require time and focus. But I’d have to take that time away from everything else that interests me. I’d have to resist the siren calls of novelty to maintain that focus.

I could do that. I could become a specialist, but honesty compels me to tell myself that I won’t. I’m a generalist because I enjoy the life that makes me a generalist. I like doing what I do.

Still I feel that envy of specialists.

I could make myself feel better by changing the subject, talking about things I do know, where the specialist would be the one having to follow. I don’t lack options for other topics. But I never do it. The generalist in me can’t let these opportunities pass (knowledge, resources, ooh!), no matter how uncomfortable they are.

I try to tell myself I shouldn’t be uncomfortable. I remind myself, in between moments of paying very close attention, of everything I said above. Under the envy, I do know my strengths and that they’re not inconsiderable and that they’re not really compatible with the dedication being a specialist requires. I know I’m a very good generalist.

I know we need generalists. I see how we suffer, how we make unnecessary missteps when knowledge is siloed. I see the way that people without knowledge of an area often fail to understand that such knowledge might exist in the world. I know we need people to step across the borders we impose on knowledge and seed ideas in fresh soil.

I do that. I say, “Here is how we solve this similar problem in a place you’ve never been. I know enough to tell you your problems aren’t unique, and this can work here too.” This is one of the things that makes me as effective as I am. It’s important work. I know that.

But oh, why can’t I be a specialist too?

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Repost: Specialist Envy
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