We’re told that specialization is the elixir of prosperity, the division of labor the font of civilization itself, but what if that’s not true, at least in the way we think it is? Since the age of the Renaissance Man faded into the history books it’s been widely believed with increasing surety that the generalist can no longer meaningfully contribute to man’s advancement. Yet in a variety of fundamental bedrocks of modern society generalism quietly reigns with as tight a grip as it ever did in the age of the Renaissance Man.
The Investor Class: still Generalists
For some time I have found it curious that while the laboring class (the proletariat), those who depend on selling labor to earn their living, have faced demands for ever-increasing specialization, the owning class (the bourgeoisie and the nobility), those who earn their living from their investments, have faced no such demand upon their energies, but rather are as generalized as ever.
It’s actually well known in certain quarters that while being a generalist, knowing a little about a lot of things, is a disadvantage in the labor market it’s actually an advantage for the investor or entrepreneur to approach the Renaissance Man ideal even at a low level, since the ability to synthesize knowledge from a variety of (seemingly) unrelated fields is perhaps the greatest font of novel insight into the world there is, and such insights are critical for the creation of new wealth and attaining an advantage over one’s competition.
It’s also true that investors and entrepreneurs have to consider the totality of the world around them and not just this or that piece; you could be the greatest expert in some narrow field in the world, but if you start a business on that basis and some other factor comes out of the blue and affects your profits you, as a specialist, will be much less likely to be able to adapt to it than someone with the more generalistic skill set of the Renaissance Man.
Markets are ecologies, not machines, and a striking tendency from ecosystems is that specialization doesn’t provide a marked advantage. Sure, there are species that evolve to be very specialized and carve out a successful niche, but Earth’s natural ecology provides ample examples of generalists who have conquered ecological niches.
Foremost among them is none other than humans; we often forget that humans are a very generalist species, able to survive in virtually any terrestrial environment and subsist off a wide variety of wild foodstuffs. The wolf is another example, tastes and lifestyle being similar enough to humans to lead to them being domesticated as “man’s best friend” even before agriculture became prevalent. Bears too are a generalist species, tastes overlapping enough to make bears feeding off (or more often being fed) human food a problem in some regions!
Koalas, who only eat eucalyptus leaves, and pandas, who only eat bamboo, are prominent examples of specialized species, as are any number of colorful tropical frogs who can only live in one specific area. Specialism helps to outcompete other species in a given niche, but it also makes the species much more vulnerable to extinction when conditions change.
The Investor Mentality: too Efficient?
We see parallels in the human economy. Taking as your path one specific specialty, such as a telephone operator, might provide quick money and domination of the niche but is vulnerable to becoming suddenly useless when conditions change, such as automation. On the other hand, the paths of investing or entrepreneurship are perennial, the skill set being applicable to almost anything in any time period, to the extent that there’s an entire school of political and economic thought, the universal basic income movement, centered around taxing the rich to finance basic income on the premise that automation will render investing and entrepreneurship the only vocations left standing!
Indeed, the investor’s way of looking at the world is so broadly applicable that David Graeber noted that the language of investing — investment and capitalizing, risk and return, reward and opportunity — has become steadily more pervasive over time, by now extending far beyond its native range of finance.
The Renaissance Man springs eternal
Also extending far beyond its native range in recent times is a related field, economics, which has a (to many academics) distressing tendency to colonize any other field it can get its hands on, and this provides an instructive example of how generalism re-emerges in an increasingly specialized world.
There is always a demand for those who have the ability and willingness to approach the world holistically, and if economists are the leading group offering holistic scholarship then our view of the world will be dominated by economists. Robin Hanson is perhaps the most prominent example of this tendency, being much better known for the Great Filter than for economics scholarship.
Man as Polymath
Demand even extends beyond the realms of business or scholarship that might come to mind when one imagines a Renaissance Man; generalism is much more sexually attractive than specialism is. Who makes a better lover: someone who’s a world-leading expert in one narrow field that virtually no one else cares about, or someone who can talk intelligently about almost anything?
Humans, and possibly all forms of intelligence, are naturally polymathic, instinct driving us to understand not one extremely small piece of the world around us but rather the whole of the world around us. Although broad themes of interest, such as tendencies toward creative expression or quantitative study, emerge from the psyche, few people are only interested in learning about or doing one thing for their whole lives; cruel necessity is what drives the kind of specialism we see among some newly-minted PhDs, where about the only thing they know to a greater degree than masses of their peers do is a small expansion of someone else’s work in an extremely narrow sub-field that few will ever care about.
Consider that many of the best insights in life come not from the extended monotonous tedium of working at one task until one becomes the best at it in the world, but rather from working on one thing followed by doing something else and then having something “click” in one’s mind. Archimedes only realized how the volume of irregular objects could be precisely assessed after he started to take a bath. Richard Feynman came up with his Nobel-Prize-winning ideas concerning quantum electrodynamics as a result of seeing a man spinning a plate on his finger in a cafeteria.
Better Specialists than the Specialists Themselves
And it’s not just in the realm of innovation where generalism triumphs; when they do concentrate their energies generalists have a surprisingly easy time rising to the top of specialized niches, their broader range often being more than a match for specialists’ greater experience. In athletic disciplines, for example, it’s often thought that focused practice makes for the best performance; Tiger Woods is perhaps the archetypal example, having learned to putt before he could talk. But in reality most top athletes follow a path more like that of Roger Federer, who tried out a variety of sports before finally deciding on tennis in his late teens.
Another striking tendency, tying back to how the demand for generalism is satisfied even under the guise of specialization, is how the higher one goes up in management the more generalistic the skill set demanded, to the extent that managers are regularly invited to cross over into completely unrelated lines of business, often successfully, on the premise that the skill set from managing in one field crosses over to the other. This tendency reaches its culmination with management consulting, where consultants might be invited to solve problems for any number of more or less unrelated businesses over the course of a career.
One might even say there’s a cruel paradox at the heart of our workplaces, where to get into companies at the low levels, an “entry-level job”, one must be a specialist, presenting oneself and often actually molding oneself as if one’s true passion in life is to excel at some narrow task demanded by the company for a particular position, only to have to discard all that and revert to the primordial generalism of mankind one had to spend so much work suppressing in the first place in order to move up into management.
The Elites’ direct generalist Tracks
A direct track from a generalist education to a generalist position in management would be much more efficient, and indeed management consulting provides just that. It’s a very common career path at elite colleges to be generalistically educated in the liberal arts through the bachelor’s level and then go into consulting after graduation. More common still is to be educated in business at the collegiate level, which is so generalistic that by this point the MBA is the liberal arts degree of the technical majors, before going into consulting.
The catch is that this path needs an elite college to work, and getting yourself into one is difficult without being a social elite to begin with. Still, the path of lifelong generalism within institutions has usually been the most open to elites; our time is no different. Cultivating such pathways for people who aren’t social elites, aren’t economic elites, and who don’t do well in school but nevertheless have the ability would be a fruitful avenue to explore for anyone who takes the meritistic ideal seriously.
Bucking the Trend
Aside from management and athletics, though, the arts are another field the supposedly inevitable force of specialization forgot. It doesn’t seem any more difficult to be a “triple threat”, to simultaneously dance, sing, and act, than it always was. Ditto for singing and songwriting, even simultaneously pursuing fields as unrelated as painting and music composition. As in athletics, it’s quite common in the arts to receive very general training until choosing a specialty only late in the game. The vast majority of dancers, for example, including at the highest levels, are at least competent in multiple styles of dance.
Indeed, across a wide range of the economic landscape there is ample reason to believe that economic development opens up more space for polymathic endeavor rather than less, as the number of combinations of different talents (the “talent stack”) increases at a much faster rate than the number of talents do.
One opposing force to specialization not often discussed is “de-skilling”, where automation makes highly complex tasks that formerly demanded great skill honed through years of training into simple tasks accessible to anyone without much if any training. This leads to tasks that formerly demanded several specialized personnel becoming the domain of one less-specialized worker.
So even within the laboring classes there are forces that arrest or even reverse in some sectors the tide of specialization we often think of as inevitable, providing some measure of hope to budding Renaissance Men who find themselves working against the grain of the modern economy.
For a new Renaissance Man
It is also important to note that the trend seems to be confined to the working classes, without affecting the owning classes to any significant degree. It seems that while specialization makes for better servants, it cannot make better masters. A culture that conceives of the division of labor as being one and the same with “the magic of the market” is a culture that will never produce liberation and enlightenment among its working classes, only more and more efficient forms of servility.
In the end, it turns out there is no substitute for the perennial pursuit of universal knowledge, the dream that, in the words of Leon Battista Alberti, “A man can do all things if he wills them”. Instead of surrendering to the tide of mediocrity and slave morality, we would do well to embrace the spirit of the Renaissance Man ever more tightly as we build the future.