The Art and Heart of a Generalist

The Art & Heart of a Generalist

“Hey Dad”, I said. “I want to be a Generalist.” A puzzled look then took over my dad’s face. “I want to be good at many things,” I said. “That’s good sweetie,” he said, “but you have to pick something to do for a career.”

That is the conversation that kills the hopes and dreams of the generalist.

We are told we have to specialize. Asking a generalist to specialize is basically the death of their spirit.

Their interest in the many and varied subjects out there is just too great to be asked to do just one thing.

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

This above fictional conversation didn’t happen. However, our school systems right from elementary school right through to higher education constantly ask us to.

It comes from the simple question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. Sure, I had some kind of answer when I was younger to this question.

At different times, my answers yielded several answers.

Here are all the ones I could remember:

  • Veterinarian
  • Photographer
  • Writer
  • Architect
  • Interior Designer
  • Web Designer
  • Graphic Designer
  • Biotechnologist
  • Personal Trainer
  • Interior Plantscaper
  • Landscaping
  • Horticulturalist
  • Farmer

I realized the main thing that these careers enabled was the ability to make people’s lives better and more beautiful. This allowed me to recognize that a secondary thing that was needed for me was the need to have creative control and to be hands-on.

The Heart of a Generalist

The heart of a generalist is being solely motivated by intrinsic means. That means, being motivated the way we were when we were children. We did things for the enjoyment of it, not to be paid, or rewarded. We did it because we loved it.

The Art of Being a Generalist

Quote from Article


To be successful as a generalist it is important to understand your motivators and your personal needs, therefore the art of being a generalist is to present yourself as a specialist, then bring in your varied desires and passions to the table of your specialist title.


This is not to dupe the public. This is because when a person is looking for something they need, they are looking for something specific. You can not be found as a generalist because people are not looking for them.

Nobody is Looking for Generalists, except Generalists

Typically, those who are looking for generalists are those who are also generalists or think they may be one. You might have heard of multi-passionate, or multipotentiate as well as polymath, scanners or renaissance person. If you are a generalist who hasn’t had a formal education you might refer to yourself as an Autodidact (or self-taught person) because a lot of generalists are self-taught.

Other Terms Often Thrown Into the Generalist Pile

Multi-Passionate is loosely referred to as one with multiple passions or interests.

Polymath is defined as a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning. (source)

Renaissance man (or person) is a present-day reference to a person with exceptional knowledge or proficiency in more than one field such as Leonardo Di Vinci. (source)

Multipotentiate was coined by Emily Wapnick and says of it the following: Multipotentialites have no “one true calling” the way specialists do. Being a multipotentialite is our destiny. (source)

Scanners is a term created by Barbara Sher in her book “Refuse to Choose” and refers to them as a person with an unusually wide range of interests and curiosity in unrelated subjects, and a low tolerance for boredom.

Sidenote: If you are interested in Barbara Sher and whether you are a scanner, make sure to search for both Barbara Sher and scanner at the same time otherwise you’ll be brought listings about scanners the computer device.

We Can Be Generalists, Just Don’t Label Yourself One

The problem with being labeled a generalist is that you are never seen as proficient in any one thing and this just leads to confusion with those who have specialist mindsets. We can be generalists, we just can’t label ourselves that way. I blame the idiom “Jack of all trades and master of none.” Damn you, Jack, whoever you are.

Can Generalists Be Successful?

Well, the short story is you need to combine your favorite or most explored passions into something unique that in and of itself becomes a specialization of its own.

You can be a hand-letterer, but maybe you also know how to creatively place those pieces of art, or how to frame them. This borrows from a knowledge of interior decorating.

You can be a graphic designer, but maybe you also know botany and you could be really good at creating botanical illustrations or logo designs. You could even create websites for gardening or floral related businesses.

You can be a photographer and love animals, so you specialize in pet photography. But maybe you are also good at poetry and you can combine a portrait with a special poetic piece to go along with it and frame it beautifully.

You can be a personal trainer, but focus on Yoga or Pilates and combine them to create unique workouts for people with physical restrictions. You could even combine this with interior plantscaping by creating a calming interior oasis for those to work out in.

Idea Sex is a Goldmine for Generalists

A great way to come up with ideas for businesses or projects is a term called “Idea Sex”, that is often talked about by James Altucher, author of the book “Reinvent Yourself”. Basically, you come up with a list of things that appear opposite from each other, or just very different. I combine things I like to see if there is an intersection with new possibilities. Figure out if it will work, or how it could work to build a business. This is a goldmine for the generalist. Check out his article “How to Have Great Ideas“.