The Awesome Power of the Generalist-Specialist Hybrid

A generalist has many, varied interests; a specialist has one, primary one. For me, the secret to happiness and professional success is combining both approaches.

For years, I railed against the idea of having “one thing.” As an undergrad, I tried and failed to specialize in jazz bass. I chose ethnomusicology for grad school because it suited my generalist side (studying various instruments, languages, and disciplines). However, the further along I got, the more I felt pressured to narrow my focus. I reluctantly chose jazz as my dissertation topic. While I ultimately decided academia wasn’t for me, developing my brand firmly established jazz bass as me area of specialization.

Although I love my work as jazz bassist and instructor, I still make time for my various interests (comics, language-learning, yoga, etc.) Here’s why:

  1. It Exposes You To New Ideas. Making comics has inspired me to find informative and entertaining ways to represent information graphically. Discovering language-learning has given me tools to more effectively teach music theory. Practicing yoga has informed how I use my body to play bass. These are just three of the many ways my multiple interests have informed my brand materials.
  2. It Sets You Apart From Other Professionals. Making comics, getting a PhD, cross-stitching, etc. – these are all things that set me apart from other jazz bassists and teachers. Without these things, I’d be just another indistinct bass teacher. Not only do multiple interests make you more informed (see above), they also make you more interesting.
  3. It Allows You To Live an Authentic Life. I showed a friend the double-banner shown above. He paused, and reluctantly said, “Not to be mean, but it looks a little…bipolar.” But that’s the thing – I am more than a little bipolar (even though I rarely use that particular term to describe myself). I’ve often felt like I have two distinct personalities, roughly corresponding to generalist and specialist approaches. When I tried to be just a specialist as an undergrad (and later as a PhD candidate), my mental and physical health took a nosedive. Now that the two core parts of personality are working together, I feel happier, healthier, and more authentic. (Being as the other focus of my dissertation was authenticity, it’s clear that this was a big issue for me at the time)  

Have you struggled with managing your generalist and specialist sides? Felt pressure to just be a specialist? If so, what helped you achieve balance and/or acceptance?

Author: Leah Pogwizd

Bassist, Instructor, Writer

2 thoughts on “The Awesome Power of the Generalist-Specialist Hybrid”

  1. Hey Leah, thanks for your article, you speak out of my soul. I was a musician, later studied medicine, then went into psychotherpy/psychosomatical medicine and now started to get my butt into entrepreneurship/tech etc. – I had the same problem with music that I was learning to many instruments + composition + orchestra or that I learnt to many languages.

    I would see it as following: when you are young try to get a broad overview over all fields: (arts, psychology, medicine, biology, physics, business etc.), instead of branching down try to find the fundamental principles behind, search for the same principles in other fields… try to connect the dots.
    Read biografies of people that you admire in their fields f.e. Elon Musk, Tesla, Steve Jobs, Einstein etc. – learn from they mistakes and find out why they had been successful/ what is their way of thinking and what kept them motivated….
    Once you found a field that you found to have huge impact and that you love, narrow down and stick to it, become an expert in it (like Musk in space rocket manufacturing). Stick to the end goal but be flexible in your approach. Take action and don´t stop unless you are forced to or unless you are internally conviced that another way is better. Remind yourself on your life goals again and again (often it´s childhood dreams that we were giving up when growing up).

    https://qz.com/968101/how-elon-musk-learns-faster-and-better-than-everyone-else/

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/meghancasserly/2012/07/10/the-secret-power-of-the-generalist-and-how-theyll-rule-the-future/

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences and the fascinating articles! I’ve already been incorporating some of what Musk and other extraordinary minds were/are doing and it’s been greatly beneficial for my development. I’ve been on a bit of a blogging sabbatical working on developing a series of instructional products, but I’ll be back at it – and covering these types of topics – soon.

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