Finding your path when are (reasonably) good at many things
I see myself as a generalist, working as a specialist. I find many subjects and ideas interesting but find it challenging to master more than 60–70% of any given area. Can I do better? Sure. Do I want to? Not really, there are other interesting things to pursue.
My social media feed offers me a lot of literature (by educational institutes) on how you need to specialize in one area to survive the next decade. While this is great marketing strategy to attract students for a course or program, it is not the best life practice. If you are good in just one area, say French literature, you may be great at stringing sentences together — but communication needs knowledge and experience to have depth. If you are great at math, you might be able to formulate models and differentiate in your sleep — but if you can’t connect your skill to applications in physics, biology or even sociology, you might be replaced someday by an AI-driven scientific calculator.
The T-shaped skill structure is much touted, but many people are more of Ms or Gs or Zs than Ts. People are not Legos — their building blocks are not the same, and not arranged in the same way. Our approach to learning may need a refresh:
Learning should help us understand our own mind
Our education is centered on providing us knowledge as ‘facts’, be it regarding science, math, sociology, anthropology or sports. We are taught, either in the classroom or the playground, a set of rules that define the subject (or the game). We are then measured on how well we play within those rules (or constraints) to manipulate the world around us. We also have a scorecard that defines a ‘best outcome’. People whose minds and talents are aligned to achieving that outcome are considered at the top of their game, while those whose minds see things differently are graded average or low.
Some of us think in images, some in sound. Some of us think in numbers, others in words. Education should help us understand what our (unique) minds can do and how we can harness our power, not revere the power someone else has displayed. Education requires testing, outcomes and measurement — but this should be balanced by encouraging self-discovery.
Same ingredients, different proportions
Imagine a dish with (for example) 12 ingredients. There are now 12X12 ways of preparing the dish. Each of these successful outcomes is a different mix of the same ingredients- monetary capacity, artistic creativity, logical ability, physical prowess and the like. When you see learning and personal potential as a creative dish to be prepared, you attain the power to maximize potential by creating your own recipe. Every cook may use the same ingredients but in different proportions. There can be no right recipe for learning, just different flavors — as long as what you eventually create is edible by the people you are cooking for.
Expertise helps you stand out, average helps you connect
We seem to have developed a penchant for experts. People with emotional intelligence are not valued unless they are psychologists. People with reasonable sports ability are not valued unless they are coaches or athletes. The issue is life is fluid — it requires us to utilize multiple disciplines everyday. You brush your teeth using toothpaste (chemistry), you select your food at the supermarket (guided by nutrition facts as an amateur nutritionist), negotiate at work (mediation skills), lead teams (management), write persuasive reports (writing skills) and drive home at the end of the day (driving).
Does this mean that you can’t talk to a truck driver about his job since you are not an ‘expert’ on driving? Does it mean you can’t have an opinion on nutrition since you are not a nutritionist? Having opinions is not wrong (and necessary) as it impacts your body and life. We are all generalists — it is sub-productive if we value ourselves for only one of our many skills.
When we rely too much on panels of experts, it can be akin to a group of 10 people standing on 10 towers shouting at each other and unable to hear anything. Any expert needs to be average in someone else’s area of expertise to understand and communicate with them. For that matter, men and women have a bit of both genders inside them — if not, men or women would never be able to communicate with each other.
Average is the fluid that links one expert to another. We are all good in some , average is many and bad in some things. When we get too attached to the good and ignore the average in us, our education, potential and inner power becomes lopsided and crippled. By valuing the good and average within us, we can achieve the sense of balance we need.