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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?