I’ve always hated the question “What do I do?” Even when I had a specific job with an official title, I found the question limiting. It is too often used to pigeon-hole people into various silos. That is why I like the term Creative Generalist.
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, Time Enough for Love
The concept of creative generalist isn’t new. Indeed, some of the greatest minds in history were generalists and made their mark by connecting the dots in a variety of fields. Issac Newton, Leonardo Da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and, even my hero—Jane Jacobs—were all generalists. Each was able to connect ideas from various fields and create silo shattering ideas.
At first I didn’t identify myself as a generalist. I was a public policy specialist. But as my government career progressed, I begin to see this wasn’t truly a speciality, rather it was a sub-generalization. My peers were becoming specialists not just in public policy, but in environmental policy or fiscal policy or urban policy. I tried to follow a specialization first in international trade policy—building on my international studies undergraduate education— and later in First Nations policy.
I found, however, that delving deep into the intricacies of specific subject areas didn’t hold my passion. Instead, I was apt to take a step back and see how the various policy silos related to each other. This led me to thrive in roles in policy co-ordination and community building.
Just What is A Creative Generalist?
There is the old adage “Jack of All Trades Master of None.” I disagree with this. While a generalist is indeed a jack of all trades, s/he is also a master of one of the most important skills. This is connecting the dots and moving ideas forward. Generalists are experts at researching, analyzing and integrating ideas from a range of fields. They are also adept at working in concert with specialist representing a range of (often idiosyncratic) cultures and personality types. By working in many worlds, generalists often see things others don’t.
Ideas cannot be limited to the confines of a silo. They need space to run around and occasionally bump into strangers.
I think my needs to connect the dots is why I love urbanism. Vibrant neighborhoods don’t specialize. They serve multiple purposes and are home to a variety of people with a variety of skills. Indeed, I believe that North American cities went off track in the 1950s and 60s. This is when urban planners stopped looking at cities as web-like ecosystems and started looking at them in a linear fashion, separating property types, and more detrimentally, people types.
Development is differentiation emerging from generality, the process is open-ended and it produces increasing diversity and increasingly various, numerous, and intricate co-development relationships.