I find myself feeling strangely uncomfortable when people call me a generalist and imagine that to be a compliment. My standard response is that I am actually an extremely narrow, hidebound specialist. I just look like a generalist because my path happens to cross many boundaries that are meaningful to others, but not to me. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know the degree to which I keep returning to the same few narrow themes.

I think I now understand the reason I reject the generalist label and resonate far more with the specialist label. The generalist/specialist distinction is an extrinsic coordinate system for mapping human potential. This system itself is breaking down, so we have to reconstruct whatever meaning the distinction had in intrinsic terms. When I chart my life course using such intrinsic notions, I end up clearly a (reconstructed) specialist.

The Vacuity of Multi-Disciplinarity

The problem with this generalist/specialist extrinsically situated creativity model is that the extrinsic frames of references are getting increasingly dynamic, chaotic and murky. To the point that the distinction is becoming useless. Nobody seems to know which way is up, which way is down, and which way is sideways. If you guess and get lucky, the answers may change next year, leaving you disoriented once more.

The usual response to this environment is to invoke notions of multi-disciplinarity.

Unfortunately, this is worse than useless. In the labor market for skilled capabilities, and particularly in academia, multi-disciplinarity is the equivalent of gerrymandering or secession on an already deeply messed-up political map. Instead of votes, you are grubbing for easily won markers of accomplishment. Its main purpose (in which it usually fails) is to create a new political balance of power rather than unleash human potential more effectively.

The purpose is rarely to provide a context for previously difficult novice-to-master journeys.