Specialist v. Generalists

The coming generation will be forced to accept change on a scale that the past generation would find unthinkable.  Or perhaps a more accurate way to put it would be to say that they will be confronted by more “negative” change than we can comprehend.  Think back to the changes in the past 100 years with the rise of the petroleum based economy.  In barely 100 years we went from inventing the bicycle, to walking on the moon.  And after the 1960’s apex in transportational marvels, things really took off from a social, communication, and information side -many of which haven’t “peaked” yet.  Peak phenomena typically display similar curves on the rise and fall sides of their peak, the difference is that no one complains on the rising end of a housing bubble , but are staggered at the rate of falling home prices on the down side despite the fact that the rate of price change is roughly similar.    This is nothing new, just more poignant in the here and now.

I have written before of my call for “generalists”.  Our current society favors specialization to the degree at which we have lost competency in almost everything outside of our trained fields. But speciality build efficiency  not  resiliency.    There are insects that are hyper specialized to feed on only one plant, and they are able to do so with specific skills and tools that place them at significant evolutionary advantage.  But should that plant die off or have a bad hair day – the insect suffers just as mightily in the Bad Times as it flourished during the good.  Compare that to a more generalist insect that is able to feed on a myriad of hosts, but not nearly as efficiently as the specialists.  It will almost never out compete the specialist, but should even several of its food sources suffer it may go a bit hungry, but will continue to plod along as it has a broad pallet of choices.  The generalist is resilient to change.

I am seemingly hard wired as a generalist -so take that in mind with these recommendations.  In high school I dropped AP Chem to take auto and wood shop (my counselor was fit to be tied) since I figured I’d need those skills too. At the time I had little idea what I would need them for, but as they were important to generations past, it seemed a good idea to my young mind.  Even then I was fighting the specialization – the “career” track education of AP Calc/Physics/English seemed to be too onesidedly intellectual.  I had begun to read some philosophy in HS as well, and Aristotle’s Golden Mean resonated as did the inherent rebellion of Descartes “I think therefor I am”.  So while I learned to calculate force vectors in Physics, I applied them by swapping suspensions in my truck in auto shop.  In college I eschewed specialized degrees for a major in Philosophy and History;  I like to say I got a B.A. in “thinking”.  While studying I also worked in general construction to keep myself balanced.  Mon/Wed/Fri I would study Neitszche and the Russian kozaks, Tue/Thurs I was learning to frame, roof, side and wallboard homes.  The weekends were often for exploration – I put thousands of miles on my motorcycle on solo camping trips to the Black Hills where I taught myself to track elk and learned a Deep Love of the Land. The Hills are still my favorite place on Earth and where I hear Gaia clearest.

In the past 5 years, I have placed Re-Skilling high on my list.  I started with agriculture, and  I have learned much on growing food, building soil, and preserving the harvest.  In the past several years my reading about Peak Oil and a deeper understanding of how effed up our economic system is has sent me back into the mechanical side.  I am now actively giving myself an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering as I learn to work steel and copper with many of the same skills I learned in carpentry.  Welding, soldering, and lathe work are now vying for space in my free time with composting, wood working, and time in the fields.  That is one of the problems with generalization – one can’t do everything -but more on that later.

In many ways I am working towards fulfilling what I think I was semi consciously striving for all those years ago in High School – to become the gentleman Farmer; that Ideal from Plutarch to Jefferson of the thoughtful and self reliant agrarian citizen.  I think often of my Grandfathers – Wisconsin farmers who could weld, repair trucks, raise animals as well as barns, and reap surpluses from the soil with little technological help.   They were assets to their community and thrived or failed on their own pluck and knowhow. 

But enough with the navel gazing.  While I extol the virtues of generalism for its ability to weather a Storm.  There are certainly still causes for specialization; there will always be cause for us to follow our yearnings to do something well. Our little Community Supported Energy (CSE) club is a good example.  We have an electriconics specialist, we have the systems thinker/welder, and I have become the “farmer”.  On workdays, we can each run the grinder or saber saw, drill out sheet steel, or cut threads into rod.  We each understand the process enough to hold forth for 15 minutes with any visitor that arrives.  But when a focused task comes up – wiring the circuit for our automated auger, welding the Bio Char whisker in place, or someone asks a question on where the wood chips will come from we shift them to our “specialist”.   When we need to test the tar we produced to see how icky it is, we need to send it to someone with specialized equipment.  

There is certainly a place for specialists.  But I like to think of them as “spheres of influence (or interest)”.  My grandfather was a farmer, but he specialized in running a sawmill.  It was something that he was able to do better than his neighbors and he found a deep satisfaction in it.  This allowed him to have something to offer them – one of whom was a blacksmith, another whose wife was a seamstress.  The main difference between this idealized agrarian picture or even my CSE group and our current society is that each of us is generalized enough that we could do the job of the others, just not nearly as well or as efficiently.  Economies work on the basics of specialization – I can grow potatoes better than most of my friends, one of whom is a better mechanic than I am.  Because of our specialization it makes sense for us to trade services – I offer him potatoes for his time to put new brakes on my car.  Even more than the economic sense there is the fact that I would rather be picking potatoes than working on brakes.  And even if the services are of equal value (we were each equally proficient), this disparity of interest would be motive enough for some degree of specialization. 

With the coming of Power Down I truly believe we all need to increase our skill set – to find useful things that we enjoy doing and then to learn them well, but to also find useful things that we have no idea how to do and at least get competent with those skills too.  This is my vision of specialized generalists (say that 10x fast!), where we all know many of the skills needed in today’s world – from computer  programming to composting to bread baking to tomato growing to auto repair to monetary system design.  But more so, that we all have the pride of learning that we can do some of those things well enough to be considered proficient.  

I am idealistic enough to honestly believe that we each have something that we are able to do better than most other people.  For many, we may not have even found that thing yet.  But the coming Change will force our hand in becoming more resilient -more generalized- in many aspects of our lives.  I challenge each of us to honestly consider taking some time to learn new skills; to follow our yearnings and learn a skill that we can then use to the benefit of our families and neighbors when its needed.

Be the Change


7 Responses

  1. My learning curve in the past two years has been steep, indeed. I’ve learned how to can food, how to raise chickens, pigs and goats, how to make cheese and I’ve improved my gardening skills dramatically. There’s a long way to go however. All of the above skills can and will continue to be improved as time goes by; and there are others that I want to learn in the near future. I want to learn home butchery and meat curing. I want to get over my fear of power tools. I want to learn to build and maintain a windmill. I want to learn to sew.

  2. Awesome Aimee! You are light years ahead of me on the animal husbandry!

    Power tools are incredibly useful, but I completely understand your fear. I was blessed to have been raised by a father who seemed to always have a tool in his hand. Working as a teacher in skill building classes has taught me alot of humility in regards to how “instinctual” my use of tools has become after 30 years of use.

    But fear not – with as little as an hour of intermittent use you will be amazed at the improvement. I recommend starting small – something like a cordless drill/driver. If possible, I recommend buying quality tools like Dewalt, Bosch, Rigid, Maguita, or Milwaukee. They are expensive but will last almost forever and the quality really does make a difference in their ease of use. Ryobi is also a quality brand that is usually less money. The key things to focus on are how to balance the tool, and how to apply pressure in an even, yet firm way. If you are worried about getting hurt, buy some good fitting leather gloves and go to town. The balance and pressure skills translate into everything from circular saws to angle grinders.

    Good luck Aimee! I honestly believe that the hardest skill to learn is to begin thinking that you can learn the skills. Once you’ve convinced yourself of that it is just a matter of finding a teacher/book and practice!


  3. Good observations and your high school experience brought me back to my own. As a junior or senior I wanted to sign up for auto mechanics – I had just got an old 1971 Jeepster Commando and wanted to learn how to fix things. I was told by the guidance folks not to – I was on the “college track” and my record would be destroyed by such foolishness. Mind you, I wanted to be an engineer – how silly of me to want hands-on skills. I regret listening to their warped logic. I now have 3 engineering degrees and can tell you the best engineeers are ones that have lots of solid, hands-on experience. Never stop learning new skills, including lots of hands-on ones, and if you have kids make sure they grow up with a broad base of experiences. Keep up the great work Rob!!!

  4. I think the first criteria is to rekindle the sense of inquisitiveness and wonder we had as children. Because once we start getting answers to “how does that work” we realize that we can do the same thing too.

    Another great post Rob.

  5. I look forward to future in which neighbors are both female and male (neighbors and he found a deep satisfaction in it. This allowed him to have something to offer them – one of whom was a blacksmith, another whose wife was a seamstress). Not neighbors with wives….

  6. re: generalists v. specialists – Hear! Hear!

    We are currently, at my *real* job, going through a much-needed “flattening” of the org chart. Everyone – EVERYONE – is a manager. We have no specialists anymore, and you can completely forget about generalists.

    I was a marketing generalist for years and then worked my way up to specialist when I excelled in a particular area of marketing. I should not be a manager because I don’t *manage* anyone but myself.

    We are in dire need of generalists, but my company does not nurture, or place a premium on, “utility players.” This is ridiculous and has caused quite a bit of trouble for us over the years – hence the flattening.

  7. Rob, your sharing is great on various aspects, including generalists v. specialists. Keep up the great work.
    Every day I am striving to acquire knowledge on what I don’t know and I know that I don’t know. In the last 4 years, by adopting this approach, I could contribute on good stoves, biochar applications, water treatment , etc. As a Generalist my life is growing, like I have born again and again. As a specialist it is only one life. As you are sharing knowledge / experience / understanding, I am also sharing the information through about 300 weblinks / blogs / photo albums / videos etc. All the resources shared are declared as Open source technology / creative commons for the common good.

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