On Being A Generalist

Yesterday, I attended an incredible talk by Erin McKean, founder of Wordnik. Erin had one of those jobs I’ve never thought about. Before founding Wrodnik, she was a lexicographer:  “One who writes, compiles, or edits a dictionary”.

While this sounds like the most boring job in the world to me, Erin is extremely passionate about it. In fact, she wanted to be a lexicographer ever since she was 8! How does a kid even find out that this job exists? Well, Erin read in a journal or newspaper a fact that the Oxford Dictionary will take 27 years to finish, and that somehow fascinated her. Later, she ended up working for the Oxford University Press for six years. However, seeing that things were shifting online, she took the opportunity to re-think the dictionary and put it online with Wordnik.

Anyways, what most fascinated me about Erin is that she’s one of those people who knew what she was going to do ever since childhood. There are a lot of programmers and musicians who have a similar story. They just knew at 6 or 8 what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives, and happily excelled in it.

It’s fascinating to me because I’m definitely NOT like that. To be honest, I cannot imagine doing one thing for the rest of my life. The story of Jiro from Jiro Dreams Of Sushi both fascinates and frightens me at the same time.

I’m a big generalist. I like to do a little bit of everything, without committing to one thing. As I’ve been learning to code, I learned that what I really love is learning. When you’re pursuing one thing for your whole life, the rate at which you learn is really slow. You learn a lot in the beginning, and then you discover and learn small things every day. I like to learn a lot all the time, so that’s why I like to pick up completely new things once my learning rate slows down for whatever I’m doing now.

Being a generalist is pretty fun though. I’ve picked up random skills that can all be put together to create and market whatever I come up with next. Yet, it is also a pretty hard journey. Somedays, I just don’t know where I’m going.

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  • Dear Natasha,

    Thank you for this post. I was recently told that I’m a generalist (in terms of my present interests as a junior software developer) and was initially letdown because I didn’t want to be somebody who’s decent at several things but not really good at anything. If I already knew a specific field in software engineering that I loved most and wanted to pursue my career in, my life may be easier as I won’t have to decide what I should learn first at this time in my life. But like you, I do know that two general things I love: learning and programming.
    And for now I hope to be content in having the opportunity to explore, and to grow as a learner and a programmer.

    In the long run (maybe in a few years) I hope to become an engineer with T-shaped skill set/speciality, but thank you for the reminder that it’s ok to be a generalist and a learner =)

    Best,
    Moon

    • Hi Moon,

      I kind of enjoy being a generalist. I can talk to many people about what’s interesting to them and know something about it, which is pretty cool. I don’t think I’ll ever like something to go really T deep into it, I’ll probably just go right below the surface on many little things.

      Totally ok to be a generalist!