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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