There are few things that I am really good at.
Phrased like that, it sounds like self-deprecation, but I actually think it is a valid judgement, especially when followed by the equally true statement: there are many things that I am quite good at.
Years ago, I was working as an academic researcher in pure mathematics. It was making me really unhappy, so I ended up doing a lot of other things on the side, both at the university and in my spare time. Today, I think my experience as an academic is as valuable as those in music journalism, even if that at the time seemed only a silly hobby.
Still, when I meet people in my work in digital security who are better researchers, speakers, writers or managers, I can’t help but feel an imposter. I have even given talks or written articles on niche subjects that I was a bit of an expert on, just because I felt I needed to prove I belonged. I still sometimes worry that my not being a specialist will get in that way of finding that ideal job.
That’s when scientist turned sports writer turned journalist David Epstein came to the rescue. His book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World had been recommended to me several times until I finally read it during the Christmas holidays.
In Range, Epstein argues that today’s world focuses too much on specialization, whereas the world needs generalists just as much, if not more. Generalists not only see the bigger picture, they are also able to make links that aren’t obvious to those who have only ever focused on the same square millimeter.
The examples cited in the book show that this even matters in areas where specialization seems to makes sense, such as professional sports, Nobel Prize-winning science, or life-saving medicine.
Epstein has a pleasant writing style and makes his case through many carefully chosen anecdotes. Of course, there is always a risk of selection bias and it’s fair to say I can’t really judge whether Epstein’s point holds as much as he claims to be. After all, I am not an expert in this field.
But that doesn’t really matter. What matters to me is that Epstein convinced me that my being a generalist is not only okay, it is actually something to embrace. After reading his book, I definitely feel more confident about my own set of skills and worry less about them being broad and sometimes a bit random rather than very deep.
A year ago, I decided to spend some time improving some technical skills that seemed relevant to future jobs. I thought that maybe I could learn assembly language, or operation system internals. Instead, I ended up reading a lot of books on race, gender and sexuality. Now I am even more sure that these will help me in future jobs just as much.