Generalist: We Should Learn Outside Our Fields of Expertise

Recently updated on: October 21, 2023

I recently read a book named Range by David Epstein. Upon reading its chapters, I learned many advantages of being a generalist (or multipotentialite) over being a specialist in the broader sense and applications.

Though I don't have anything against those who go deep into their fields to specialize, it just so happened that generalists have a bad reputation for being called "Jack-of-all-trades, master of none."

In which generalists, like myself, would often add: "Jack-of-all-trades master of none, but oftentimes better than being master of one."

Because of my generalist intuition, I also learned to find more ways to improve by learning outside our fields.

Generalists Learn From Unrelated Fields

Man Wearing Black Adidas Jacket Sitting On Chair Near Another Man Wearing Blue Jacket Eager To Learn
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In school, we often differentiate our subjects into two major categories: major and minor subjects.

We would then focus all our time and attention on the majors because we think minor subjects are just added to the curriculum to increase our tuition fees.

However, our minor subjects have an essential role in our holistic development since they offer opportunities for growth that are not readily available in our other subjects.

Now that we're older, we realize that many things that seem unrelated can still be applied in other areas of our personal and professional lives.

Studying topics not directly related to our fields of specialty can trigger interest and provide a wider perspective. 

With more information available today than at any time in the world, we need to capitalize on it and learn more.

Another lesson from immersing in other fields of interest is the opportunity to gain knowledge and apply lateral thinking to 'think outside the box.'

Generalists Think Outside The Box

The phrase "think outside the box" is a cliche. It suggests that you should think of new creative solutions for existing problems, but the question remains, how would you think outside the box if you're always inside it?

To get a bird's eye perspective of a problem and come up with novel solutions is to know similar situations that may not be directly related to the current problem but have the potential for lateral thinking applications.

Outside-the-box thinking also differs from the typical input-output solution we're taught in school. It is far deeper and broader if we would learn from people from seemingly unrelated fields.

Transfer of Learning

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Transfer of learning is one of my favorite learning process concepts. It deconstructs an existing concept into its fundamental principles before reconstructing and applying them to new areas.

Years ago, I learned it from a blog post on how Elon Musk uses the learning transfer to understand different concepts to solve existing problems from the ideas he discovered from various media, especially the books he read throughout his lifetime.

A good example of transfer of learning is the mathematical concept of the Golden Ratio, best approximated by the Fibonacci Sequence. 

Several fields, like art and photography, engineering and architecture, music, and even stock market trading, employ the golden ratio.

Applying the 80/20 Rule in Learning

As a generalist, one learning technique is the 80/20 Rule, commonly known as the "Pareto Principle." It states that 80% of the outcomes are from 20% of the inputs.

This can be applied by learning about the larger, fundamental concepts from topics you wish to learn. Doing so can produce a positive outcome.

I think we can relate this principle to what Elon Musk said in a Reddit AMA.

One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree -- make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.

Elon Musk 

The 20% can be the trunks and big branches by looking at knowledge using the semantic tree analogy.

Putting It All Together

For generalists, we are not aiming for mastery. We are more concerned about how to learn the most out of our limited time.

We live in a time when information is generated more daily than in several years combined. So, we need to learn how to filter them and select which ideas to learn.

The three concepts of lateral thinking, transfer of learning, and the 80/20 principle in learning can be very helpful in learning more about a topic faster.

Happy learning! God Bless you!

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