In praise of being a generalist

There’s something undeniably alluring about being highly accomplished at something. Being the best. Being at the top of your field, your game, your performance. But there’s an opportunity cost to this kind of excellence— the time and focus you dedicate to one thing, you are not dedicating to anything else. Can single-minded focus actually undermine your effectiveness? It depends on what you are doing. . .

Let’s think about this through the lens of running for a moment. We are not all 100m sprinters, even though that’s impressive, and you can win cash and medals and huge endorsements and titles like “the fastest man in the world.” But is Usain Bolt, impressive as he is, better at everything than you are? Is he a better human than you are? His speed is truly amazing, but it’s just speed. This is why obstacle course races are cool— you have to be fast, but you also have to be tough, have power, have strength, have skills. Even the crossfit games (as mixed as my feelings are about crossfit) are a good example of testing a broad set of competencies rather than a narrow one.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I am not, shall we say, a highly focused individual. I am curious, a bricoleur, a person who loves to say yes and follow side trails. My grandmother once wrote a poem about my twin sister and me, where she was the arrow and I was the hummingbird. She was a smart lady, my grandmother. 

I’ve never been a dedicated athlete in a particular sport, but I’ve always enjoyed being active and learning new physical practices and skills. I’m 35, and I’ve never been on a championship team, or won a major race, or broken any records. But I am (reasonably) fast, (sort of) strong, have (some) endurance, and have (pretty good) flexibility. I’m healthy, free from major injuries, I feel good, and I can jump in to just about anything if someone invites me. I can lift heavy stuff of the floor, defend myself, run away. I consider that winning, even though I don’t have a full trophy case.

image of diplomasAnd in academia, I’m the same. I’ve veered down lots of paths that interested me over the years (yes, reader, my first undergrad degree is actually in religion!). As many people will tell you, being broadly curious is not the way to get ahead in academia (see my post on FOCUS). I have gotten this advice over and over, but even as I have increased focus in some areas, I continue to resist it. I recognize that being a generalist doesn’t usually get you to the pinacle. I won’t be a tenured full professor at 40.  But I believe that breadth of experience makes you better at everything you do. I have three main functions in my academic life: clinical practice, research, and teaching. This isn’t unusual, but my desire to pursue them all with gusto is. Because I work in healthcare, my different experiences allow me to relate to different people in different contexts– and relating to people is a central skill of healthcare. My role as a primary care provider is that of a generalist— be familiar with lots of different things, and look at the big picture of health. I am also a better scientist because I have a clinical practice— my understanding of the research questions to ask, and the context to interpret the findings, is sharper than it would be otherwise, and my research is relevant. Because I am a teacher, my clinical practice is sharper. My knowledge is up to date and my assumptions are constantly turned over, ensuring I am not operating on habits that are no longer supported.

Is the academic system rigged to favor those with narrow foci? Much of the way we conduct science is reductive— and that’s OK, there are reasons for that. But the answers to very narrow questions are not enough to create meaningful changes on their own. The world of science needs implementation studies, ecological models, effectiveness studies, pragmatic trials. We need practice-based evidence as well as evidence-based practice. And if we are all hyper-focused on a small area of knowledge, no one will be looking out at these big-picture issues.  Academia needs big-picture thinkers, even if it doesn’t always know it. Some fields are more flexible than others— I work in nursing, which is reasonably young in the academic sphere. There are niches to be carved, roles to be developed, and ideas to pursue. My advice is, don’t assume there’s no path forward. Make your case and excel in multiple areas. Ask how promotion & tenure guidelines account for different activities. I have gone into academic roles that were advertised narrowly and successfully made the case that I wanted a different mix of activities (more time for research, sometimes, or clinical practice, other times). I suspect if people do this more, and demonstrate the value of this kind of expertise, the paradigm might shift a bit to be more open to broader definitions of excellence.

mixing board
just gotta get the levels right.

Do you have an academic career with multiple roles? How have you advocated for yourself to keep breadth as well as depth?

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