A Fellow “Generalist”
22 min read
A personal journey to becoming comfortable being a “jack of all trades” and then learning I was a master at something.
A few days ago I watched Adam Savage’s reply to one of his patreon’s question:
“Do you ever lament that you’re a generalist when it comes to maker skills, instead of devoting all of your mind and resources at becoming a master at one particular thing? I know I do.” ~Jason Cz
If you haven’t seen the video go watch it. Adam does a great job discussing why he’s proud to be a generalist. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Amazing right? This video as well as this post from a fellow maker touched me so much that I thought I would tell my story in becoming a generalist in the hope that it might help others deal with some of the anxiety or missteps I had. My general answer would be YES of course I struggled with that. After all our entire society is geared for mastery of a skill. After reading this I hope that if you are a generalist you’ll embrace it or if you are someone mentoring a generalist you can help them see why they might not be satisfied with mastering a single skill. This is by far the longest blog post I’ve written and I plan to develop the individual stories into something more but for now, here’s my story.
Looking back I was always curious. In my youth, my quest for understanding often manifested to others as destructive behavior. I had no qualms destroying something to understand how it worked. I didn’t mean to destroy it but I lacked the skills to understand how to put it back together. It wasn’t until later that I realized that people reacted better when I tried to fix things. I found that tearing apart a broken thing could reveal how it worked along with the added benefit that it didn’t upset people as bad. My grandfather would often say
“If it can be fixed he’ll fix it. But if it can’t… it will be so broken no one else could attempt to fix it”
I was lucky to grow up where I did. There were always parts to scavenge and my neighborhood seemed to have an endless supply of broken bicycles and lawnmowers. Much to the chagrin of my mother, I would collect these items behind our trailer and then put them together to create frankenbikes or lawnmowers that were probably nowhere near safe to operate. But this outlet allowed me to scratch the itch and learn about the components of complex systems. I answered questions like why were spark plugs not interchangeable and how brakes worked. This led me to be the local fix-it kid for bikes and lawnmowers and I was hooked.
Fast-forwarding a bit to around the third grade. I started to attribute my thirst for acquiring new skills to my ADHD as my teachers would often tell me I had it and would penalize me for not paying attention in class. I often had a book on another subject open pouring over RAM jet architecture or space travel instead of focusing on mastering cursive. They would eventually convince my mother to have me tested, diagnosed, and drugged. However, Ritalin just exacerbated the issue. It would give me huge bursts of energy that I would pour into fracturing my learning even more. This ultimately led to me understanding that the underlying reason wasn’t ADHD but rather that I bored easily. Looking back today I can say that I drew pleasure from unlocking a new understanding, being able to conceptualize the new learning and apply it. After I had a grasp on how something worked I was not interested in the minutia of perfect execution. This went on until the fifth grade when I was taken off of Ritalin. I remember the teacher's words that convinced us.
While it may appear that he is not paying attention in class or completing his homework David shows an aptitude for the subject matter and aced his finals which clearly shows his ability to multitask. ~ Fifth-grade teacher
I still thought of myself as a failure and coming off of Ritalin had its side effects, not to mention teenage issues. But as I progressed in middle and junior high I brought on a new title of “Nerd” I was actually really happy with this. Being a nerd also helped me understand that I was an introvert and while I did get a rush from being able to help others understand a subject I got a bigger rush from just unlocking new knowledge. The libraries at my school were extensive and my favorite subjects were Japanese and robotics. Not because I was intrigued by either subject but because the teachers allowed me to explore other avenues of the subject. I learned HTML in robotics from a fellow student and applied it to the Japanese class to help the teacher make flashcards as an example. I was also introduced to an encyclopedia set (the internet was still young) and OMG you could catch me at any time of the day exploring a new subject. These experiences launched me into becoming what I am today but they were also where I had the most challenge. Bullying and home life lead me to quit school in the 10th grade, move to another state, and become emancipated.
It was honestly the best decision for me. I wouldn’t recommend it as a first course for anyone but having a change in life like that really makes you evaluate yourself, what you’ve become, and who you want to be. I still had the support of my grandparents so I wasn’t truly alone but they structured the experience so I would have to figure things out for myself. I lived in a camper near their home but separated by a creek for example. I had to pay for utilities and rent, etc. I spent a lot of time outside of work just deep in thought to answer the aforementioned questions and it really helped me understand what I wanted to do. I hadn’t grasped and wouldn’t grasp that what truly drove me was learning but computers and programming, really electronics in general brought me a ton of joy. I didn’t really like to play games on the computer but the internet brought a ton of knowledge directly to me. I spent many many sleepless nights just going down one research rabbit hole after another. Much like the frankenbikes of my youth I was able to build computers and understand software configurations. I remember reading every page in a series named the bible. it had everything you would ever want to know about a subject in huge books. For example, there was one on HTML called The HTML Bible that had every tag in the current spec. So, of course, I became known in my town as the computer guy. I had to work in areas like retail, construction, call centers, etc. because I lacked the degree and confidence to even apply for jobs related to my passion, so it remained a passion for some time. Often times I would work a full 8–12 hour shift and then go making house calls to fix people's computers just to scratch that itch to solve problems. I didn’t care about the money and oftentimes didn’t charge opting to just eat dinner with the people who I helped.
It wasn’t until I landed an actual job at a software development company that I really understood my potential. I was hired to help the owner with customer support but her husband saw the potential in me to become more. He noticed that I would try to break the application, write scripts for it, and push bugs to the software devs. He then made me realize that I could make things virtually and that in doing so it was just as satisfying as building a computer.
So of course this propelled me along a trajectory of becoming a software developer but also landed me in jobs dealing with PC building or systems administration in my early career. Keeping up with the latest and greatest in these fields now became my primary focus and things were changing so rapidly that it satisfied that need to learn and everyone was interested in my opinion of new tech since I kept up to date so it helped accelerate both my career and personal comfort with being an SME. Yes a new label, SME (Subject Matter Expert).
I also didn’t like being called a Windows or a Mac person. I like Linux just as much and when mobile phones started to be a thing I wanted to use all of the operating systems I could. I remember being called a dual platformer and later a cross platformer, eventually I would settle with platform-agnostic but it wasn’t because I had specific tasks to perform on an individual operating system. There were tasks more suited to one over the other at the time it was the thrill of being able to learn about them all and then apply it. When someone would visit the build room and ask to recover something I could save thousands of dollars by recovering the file(s) myself booting into Linux and using some of the advanced command-line tools available there. This was valuable both for my company and me as it showed I had capabilities beyond my current role.
It wasn’t until I was introduced to an Arduino that I really called myself a maker and even then it wasn’t until I discovered that I could communicate with them to create mashups like:
That I could conceptualize things and then make them real. I had often built things and even worked in construction but up until this moment I classified myself incorrectly as a hacker. My explanation was that I could take disparate systems and join them together to create new things that they weren’t intended for. Like creating a Youtube clone in SharePoint using Adobe’s media manager. Hacker seemed to fit and it was cool so I ran with it. Like much of my experience I often knew enough about the systems I worked with to build things with them. to make a square peg fit in a round hole. It’s what drove my passion to solve tough problems.
All along the way, I had great mentors that saw my curiosity and eagerness to learn and helped me. My general knowledge of multiple systems, languages, techniques, etc drove me to be involved with many high profile, tough technical challenges like being on the team that solved antenna gate or helping create new computer vision techniques for landing drones.
By some miracle or happenchance, this culminated in me getting to work full time on projects with companies like Verizon and Disney. It was here that my maker abilities were tested, broken, and reforged. From software development to rapid prototyping with 3d printing. I was able to take a problem, conceptualize a solution, and then not only build a prototype for it but also refine it into production and influence many lives. I was solely responsible for the outcomes of my ideas and this is where I truly became a generalist. Before it was a passion, a hobby, a way to scratch an itch. Now it was putting food on the table.
It wasn’t until I stepped away from this role that I realized I had no understanding of time management. Most of my work up until this allowed my passion to run rampant but were structured enough to step in when I would take on too much or put up a framework for me to limit my commitment. A lot of this was due to the mentors I had but also just how the enterprises were structured.
Being introduced to Agile which I thought at first was simply kanban was another life-altering educational experience. Never before had I understood how to create time estimates and back them up with experience and apply focus and structure to the problems I was trying to solve. While agile itself was yet another skill to learn it has become way more useful in life than I ever thought possible. I still don’t know all the ins and outs of Agile but it has allowed me even with a base understanding to change the way I structure problems and time management.
While learning agile I was forced to specialize in a certain language and thought about going all-in on the software developer route. I could see myself adopting a discipline for a specific way of software development and focusing on deep-diving into a single ecosystem. After having to keep up with all of the new trends for all of the different languages, frameworks, plugins, architectures, etc. I was tired. Not from information overload but learning things that I’d never get to apply. It was frustrating, infuriating, and caused me to get a second job and third job. I was not longer getting to scratch that itch so I was looking for places to do so. It was great at first but after overcommitting and underperforming I could see the cycle starting again. So I had to figure out how to scratch that itch without taking on additional commitments. Finally, I found the right balance between the two, and something amazing happened. My work once again took notice of my peculiar talents and carved out a position that fits my needs perfectly. They understood that being able to rapidly learn and apply new knowledge was perfect for blazing the path forward. Uncovering and conquering technical unknowns were essential to leap frogging in the market and of course, failing along the way is necessary for discovery.
Now, today I have an understanding of what I love to do and that is taking on problems that others either can’t or haven’t solved and applying the culmination of my learnings to solve them. Most of the time this uncovers a new gap in my knowledge and begins a new learning journey. Being in this mindset all the time still sets me up to have to rapidly learn new skills all the time and I couldn’t be happier for it. I have found though that software isn’t enough to scratch my itch completely anymore and that’s why I also love being a maker. I’ve found that pursuing making fun things in my spare time and learning new techniques like joinery has really put me in my happy place.
So as you can see becoming a generalist is a journey just like becoming a master at any particular subject. You have to put just as much time and effort into it as mastering any particular skill. This is why I don’t like the phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none”. The difference is that generalists are masters. While the external skills may be varied in both the level of knowledge and application of a specific skill, generalists are masters at rapid learning, conceptualizing, and applying that learning.
I can however in floating this term with friends and family see that even generalist might not be the best term for this. Much like the term hacker, it has a negative connotation that you aren’t a master at anything. It’s hard to change people’s minds around a term's definition as I’ve found out with both the term hacker and drone (I still call what most people call drones quadcopters). I hope to learn or develop a term one day that describes my skill as a skill of acquiring skills but until then generalist it is.
So as you look at my journey and map it to your own as a hacker, SME, multi-disciplinary engineer, maker, or generalist I have three thoughts to leave you with. 1. Understanding that you don’t know everything about something is key to letting others help you understand more about everything. 2. Learn how to learn on your own. Mentors and other resources are a byproduct of learning how to learn. 3. Find an application for your knowledge. You haven't truly learned a subject until you’ve applied it. Even if it’s conceptualizing the application.