Kind of a speculative entry today, I don't have a complete answer. I've been trying to crack this nut for a while -
What's the difference between a generalist and a dabbler?
Rather, what separates a generalist from a dabbler?
They're very similar. Both dive into a wide variety of things and affairs. Both pick up new skills regularly, sometimes at the expense of the highest level of mastery in a specialized field.
But we all know people who dabble in this, do a little of that, and never make any contributions. And then, on the other hand, you've got people like Thomas Jefferson and Leonardo da Vinci, who did excellent work in a variety of fields.
Or take Steve Jobs - it's not clear that he's the best person at Apple at anything in particular, aside from maybe his presenting ability. There's probably more talented people at hiring, managing, design, marketing, operations, cashflow/numbers, negotiation, etc, etc. But one that seems remarkable about Jobs is that he's really, really good at a great majority of important things. He might not be the best at any one skill he has, but he's among the best in a huge variety of skills.
... I think I've got it.
I love thinking on paper. In this case, I'm not going to go back and edit this entry so it looks like I had it all along. No, I'd rather show you my thought process.
I started thinking about the difference between a generalist and a dabbler. I'm something of a generalist - I'm studied and trained and I've worked and played in a lot of different fields.
I think anyone aspiring to a generalist role (in my case, as a strategist) really ought to be concerned that they're not just dabbling away. I figure, a good generalist type is incredibly valuable to have around, naturally filling many blanks on any team and doing lots of interesting work.
But I think a would-be generalist has to be concerned that they're not just dabbling. So, what separates a skilled generalist from a mere dabbler, who screws around in this and that but never accomplishes anything? That wouldn't be a good place to wind up.
My first guess is that the difference would be some overarching purpose. In Jobs' case, it's clear he really likes making beautiful things. Everywhere he's gone, he made incredibly beautiful things. Beauty runs throughout his career - both Apple stints, Next Computer, and Pixar. Beautiful products, beautiful advertising, beautiful packaging, beautiful everything.
But I started thinking more about da Vinci and Jefferson. While da Vinci was clearly a preeminent artist and inventor, he also did a host of pragmatic scientific discoveries, and even worked in warfare. I can't find a unifying theme throughout his life without forcing it.
Jefferson even less so. Jefferson worked on such a wide range of unrelated things... it's clear he believed in knowledge, learning, life, liberty, and philosophy... but again, no overarching theme.
No, I don't think it's an overarching theme. That was my first guess - my first guess was that the difference between a generalist and a dabbler was that the generalist had some overarching theme or purpose, while the dabbler did not.
I don't think that's the answer.
So I asked, then, what do Jobs and Jefferson and da Vinci have in common?
And then one of my favorite quotes hits me.
"Real artists ship." - Steve Jobs
Could it be that the difference between a generalist and a dabbler is just saying "this is as done as it's going to be" and shipping the work?
I think maybe yes. If you look at a Jefferson, da Vinci, Jobs - they shipped. A lot. I think the dabbler moves on when he's 95% complete, so he never gets the completion, satisfaction, and feedback from completing a work.
Also, by completing a work in a field, you gain some renown and prestige, which makes it easier to get in touch with other successful people, which speeds your learning curve.
The dabbler moves on when things get tough. The generalist keeps going until he puts enough work out that he feels complete in a particular field, and then and only then is he on to the next thing.
And that's perhaps the difference. I'm still regularly surprised by which of my projects are winners and which are not. It's never the ones I guess or anticipate. By shipping, you have a chance to win. If you don't ship, you don't win. You don't even lose. You don't get the lessons, the feedback, or connect with other people in the field. You don't get the satisfaction and boost that comes from shipping.
Is the difference between a generalist and dabbler that the generalist buckles down and ships? I think... I think maybe that's the difference, yeah. In order to avoid dabbling, ship work in the fields you care about before moving on.
Seems correct. Your thoughts?
This is a great post. Excellent analysis.
I don't tend to think these mentalities are mutually exclusive though. DaVinci did a lot of things in his life out of his own curiosity. In his own time. Side projects. Not necessarily intending to ship. Though he also did a lot of professional and apprenticeship work, giving him a name, and allowing us to later find his unpublished <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_and_inventions_of_Leonardo_da_Vinci#Leonardo.27s_journals"journals.
I think dabbling is more of a precursor to generalizing. Like a child playing, you need to get a feel for how the world works before adding any value of your own. Moreover, by trying new things all the time, you get better at it. You learn how to pick up new skills. To relate other disciplines to your new one. What kinds of things to look for, to try, giving you a much better understanding much faster.
Dabbling also gives you the ability to choose which things you want to focus on. Which area is lacking the most? What would yield the best benefit? Since these things are not exclusive, you can generalize just a little bit, or go the other extreme and ship on most things you get involved with. It also lets you prioritize. You can decide not to produce music until after you've built a that new instrument you've been thinking about.
In any case, I think all generalists start out as dabblers. It's just a matter of maturity and passion on individual disciplines. Though I also think after you start generalizing, you'll see the benefit and keep doing it. You just have to really push yourself to get there that first time. From scripts to full-fledged websites. From journals to blogs. Licks to compositions. Ideas to products. Thinking of it this way can be helpful too. When you see a dabber, push him or her to take the next step and produce.
I think looking at accomplishment is a good angle, but there is more to it than just the choice of whether to ship. There is also whether you even get something ship-worthy made. Some people are able to create useful or complete things in new fields quickly, for a variety of reasons. Most people are not.
Good strategy here is very important - identifying low hanging fruit, picking projects big enough to be useful but small enough to complete, which use your relative strengths in the field. Identifying the summary that needs writing, the experiment that needs doing, the other field that hasn't heard about this one but would benefit from it. Someone good at this will contribute more with the same amount of learning.
My favourite quote :)
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
-Robert A. Heinlein
A slight error had occurred while posting with my name appearing as 'm' instead of the full name. Probably due to a glitch I had after having pressed the post button. I had to reload and only then I saw the error (should I call an auto-error for I had typed the full name the first time too!).
Nice exchange of ideas.
Efforts to connect what seems disparate dots. I would prefer specialist vs generalist; instead of generaist vs dabbler. Why so?
How would one describe Richard Buckminster Fuller?
What mattered was his own description: a comprehensivist!
Where would you slot Arthur Koestler? or Isaac Asimov ? or Peter F. Drucker ?
The last two were easily slotted as 'specialists' though they were generalists within their chosen careers.
It is easy to slot a person if he is a specialist whose contributions confine to a single field's development with his own creative ideas that are predominantly intra-field sourced.
But a generalist seeks creative ideas predominantly across the disciplines - inter-fields- where in he/she looks out for patterns and inter-connectivities.
It is one thing for a neurologist or a cognitive scientist to explore the gamut of biological studies for connectivities when what he/she does is an intra-field generalism.
But if a cognitive scientist looks far off into other fields - literature, arts, history, dance, music, besides other scientific fields (like mathematics), to arrive at a summation of ideas, he or she is a inter-fields generalist. Take Stephen Jay Gould for an example in his chosen field.
How would one classify Martin Gardner? A guy who was a specialist if one accounted for his career but with broad interests that makes him a generalist too. So is Douglas Hofstadter! Though a Computer Scientist, his summative thoughts were/are about mind patterns that fluidly surfed and dived across literature, art, genetics, mathematical logic, calligraphy and music (among others).
So, I reckon, we need to consider and go beyond the conventional historical references such as Da Vinci as a polymath.
Application need not be necessarily a criterion. Its about thought mode, multiplicity of aspirations, exploratory patterns of the mind, synthesizing of diverse ideas for a consilience.
Dabbler as a descriptive seems to be more a put down! Even if its only 'conversation', still one can differentiate between a specialist and a generalist!
Many scientists/intellectual thinkers/artists - who were generalists being specialists - have also been dabblers! Where do you draw the line? What one (specialization/generalization/dabbling) contributes to another alone matters within the domain of ideas if it happens at all; translating ideas into products cannot be the necessary criterion if history is a clue so far.
Sebastian - You have already answered your own question in your post. The generalist makes contributions while the dabbler does not. Leonardo Da Vinci left many of his ideas uncompleted. Most were never realized. But he made contributions nonetheless when he put these on paper for others to discover, study, and complete for him. The generalists are those who are both smart and get things done. The dabbler is smart but does not get much done.
Hi Sebastian, just wanted to let you know that you inspired me to write my first ever 'real' blog post (long overdue), on this subject :) Thanks for that!
My idea: you can't broaden and deepen your set of skills at a similar rate as just deepening it. Also broadening might lead to analysis paralysis ('dabbling') and making Mastery of a particular field, let alone multiple fields, very difficult. But actually shipping (which indicates that you overcame the analysis paralysis) might be key, if only to learn from the mistakes you make in the process.
Also reminds me about what a friend of mine once said about his brother (a successful dentist, but certainly no generalist): "He was either going to be a carpenter or dentist; aside from the completely different public perception, both require more of less repetitive training of a limited set of actions. He just chose the 'right' path.". Being a generalist definitely requires more discipline (to ship).