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The Lab: Issue № 4

The use of being a generalist in general problem-solving and creativity

When reading about David Epstein’s book range, I was initially skeptical about the usefulness of a generalist. As far as I could tell, a specialist with a deep knowledge in one area seemed both more useful and more well-paid. In my mind, the wealth of knowledge online made this broad, shallow knowledge obsolete—a novice could rapidly search Google or read Wikipedia and get up to speed with the generalist on any given topic. While this may be true, it misunderstands a key aspect of creative work—without already having that information, I’m not able to recognise it in another form or context.

Without an understanding in a wide range of topics—albeit a shallow one—we are blind to potential opportunities for creativity. Creativity comes most frequently from combining two ideas from disparate fields, applying a technique or methodology from one line of work to an unrelated field. This explains why many startup ideas are pitches as the x for y e.g., an Uber for groceries. Of course, we can look up almost anything on the internet now, but the information itself is not the stumbling block in creativity. It is knowing what to look up. It is only when we have existing knowledge that we may perceive its usefulness in a novel application. Put another way, when solving a problem it is more critical to know the direction to research, not the knowing the research itself.

Reading and learning widely increases our ability to identify patterns and terminology. Priority must be on what is truly useful, to avoid rote memorisation for its own sake. A good starting point is fields which have broad applications across many areas of life: topics such as mathematics, physics, logic, etc.

In summary, don’t rely solely on the huge expanse of data online to solve all problems. Those who do truly creative and useful things in the world rely on knowing a little about a lot, then leveraging the expertise of others once they understand where to invest further time and energy. Being a generalist allows you to orient and position yourself for success in the long-term.