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?