Creative Generalist: I Connect the Dots

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.

Locals and Tourists in Vancouver. Blue pictures are by locals. Red pictures are by tourists. Yellow pictures might be by either.

Locals and Tourists in Vancouver. Image by Eric Fischer on Flickr.

My Evolution

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.

Steve Hardy

Creative Urbanism

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.

Jane Jacobs in her book The Nature of Economies

Yuri Artibise

Yuri Artibise is an experienced policy analyst, community engagement practitioner and social media specialist. I have a Master of Public Administration degree with over 10 years of public policy research, analysis, and advocacy experience.
  • Love this post, Yuri! It captures the generalist perfectly. As I like to say, I’m specifically interested in generally everything.

    • That’s a great line Keith. It would make a great t-shirt!!!

  • Great articulation of the nature of being a planner–thanks, Yuri! I’m reminded of an old joke about the difference between planners, who are often generalists, and engineers, who are typically specialists: the planner learns less and less about more and more until he or she knows nothing about everything, while the the engineer learns more and more about a smaller and smaller specialty until he or she knows everything about nothing!

    • Thanks George. There is definitely a divide between engineers and planners; and it’s one I haven’t been able to bridge yet. I’m hoping the renewed interest in bike lanes throughout North America provides an opportunity–the construction aspect appeals to the technical interests of engineers and the mobility appeals to the social interests of planners.

      • Great point, George, and excellent post, Yuri. The logic of super-specialization characteristic of engineers is so widespread and often so detrimental. Even bike lanes can be a sticking point. We have a well-intentioned town engineer advocating for bike lanes, but full-blown lanes (as opposed to, say, sharrows) aren’t always appropriate on narrow residential streets. So the engineer’s proposed street section is now super wide and there’s no on-street parking anymore! So again, you’re spot on that it’s all about context and seeing the big picture, even at the micro-level of the street.

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  • I’ve often considered myself a connector of dots at my workplace and become frustrated with organizations when I see specialists not talking to one another, or trying to do so without speaking in the same jargon. “Creative generalist” is a good phrase — one that I’ll keep in mind, along with “connecting the dots,” when reflecting on my own career.

    • Thanks David. One of my biggest frustrations of working in a large organization is the ‘siloing’ that goes on between departments and amongst different specialists. In some organizations (particularly governments), it it even expressed as a perverse sense of esprit de corps. While specialists are an essential part of any organization, there needs to be an openness to take a step back and understand how their specialty contributes to the bigger picture.

      Alas connecting the dots it not easy – I’m often heard it referred to as ‘herding cats.’

  • Steve Mouzon

    Excellent post, Yuri! And I love the “creative generalist” term! The Great Decline that began in the mid-1920’s was due in large part to the passing of the culture of generalists into (for the first time in human history) a condition where almost everyone became a specialist in something. This condition prevents a true living tradition, which is essential to sustainability. But we’re taking more and more of our lives back from the specialists in many ways, so there’s cause for hope.

  • Ken Firestone

    Thanks for posting this.