What is a “generalist” anyway?

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”— Robert Heinlein

That quote has been kicking around for ages and is often used as a description for why human beings shouldn’t aspire, as a course of action, to specialize if one’s goal is to become a fully-functioning human animal on as many ecological levels as possible. Our great uniqueness, if we have it beyond the ability to sweat & run (and opposable thumbs), is our ability to combine many mediocrities into an advantage based on the context in which the action takes place. Our big brains create complex motor patterns better than any other creature, can adopt them quickly though not perfectly.

Let’s step back: who wants to be mediocre? Well let’s define it (via Webster’s):


adjective \ˌmē-dē-ˈō-kər\

: not very good

:  of moderate or low quality, value, ability, or performance :  ordinary, so-so
Alright that still doesn’t seem like it’s making my case, right? Mediocre, by definition, is comparative within a specific domain. Specialists compared against one another or laypersons. But if you compare the skills against a general population, suddenly it’s pretty good. Like a 30 second handstand is nothing compared to what Yuri Marmarstein can do, but compared to the general population, you are a superior human being in this domain.
The best part about that? You can possess a broad spate of mediocrity in many many arenas that makes you look like Heinlein’s definition of the “Competent Man” shown at the start of this post. So how long would that take per skill set?
According to Josh Kaufman, that’s about 20 hours of deliberate practice:

So that’s about getting to the top of the initial steep curve of a skill. That’s where most people want to be; if they say they want to learn how to juggle, they don’t usually mean chainsaws on a unicycle while on fire. They mean 3 tennis balls for more that a few tosses. That’s the broad spectrum competency we’re talking about here. It’s really about the essentials.

Essential vs. Complete

Here’s where things get interesting: being a generalist is really about the essentials versus the complete picture. It reminds me of an audiobook that Ken Wilber made some years ago, where he talked about Buddhism in a similar fashion:

Needleman once said that Zen was essential Buddhism, and that Tibetan Buddhism was complete Buddhism. That’s sort of what it is, Zen it goes right to the heart: Satori! This is it, satori! IF you don’t have satori, you don’t have Buddhism. But Tibetan is like the whole shebang. I mean it’s got every single aspect, vehicle, gross, subtle, causal, all sorts of practices.

And I think that’s where the wheels come off for people: they think that a generalist is broadly specialized in a lot of areas, but it’s really just knowing the essentials in a lot of areas. Aiming to be a complete human being, functionally, is not about collecting a lot of specialization, but gaining the essentials in many areas and being able to apply them efficiently.

The Age Dilemma

Finally, there seems to be some sort of base level that we regress toward over time but can maintain. Our athletic peak, depending on event, seems to be late 20’s to early 40’s (with power events earlier and distance events later). From there we seem to just drip a small loss of ability until we reach some sort of equilibrium, maintaining motor skill, assuming activity,  until we die… a sort of biomechanical, athletic headroom that squares off when we do.

Chris McDougall talks about this with regard to distance running, and it’s clearly there with regards to weight training. But it’s even there with calisthenic/bodyweight activities that seem structurally benign. Even old master hand balancers lose their ability to do incredible one handed feats…but they can still hit a really decent handstand without trouble.

So my question is as always: is what you build above baseline beneficial, or is all the work just beating on the joints and making it harder to maintain ability with age? It certainly seems that those most accomplished in their youth are significantly less able as they get much older. They could have just changed interests, or those who still “have it” just aren’t visible like they used to be.

What does “General” look like?

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I think that if you’re looking to be a “generalist” here’s some ideas:

  • Get good at GMB’s Level 1 curriculum (they don’t pay me or anything, I just think it’s a good packaged answer to the question) OR…
  • Find a Movnat practitioner (or some other phylogentic movement skill system practitioner) OR…
  • Do some minimal level of resistance training with a lot of the movement activity mentioned above (similar to my blog post here).
  • Include some sort of hinge power patterning. Doesn’t have to be really heavy, but should be accessible. The old Okinawan women can squat off the ground at 98 years because they’ve always squatted off the ground.
  • You’re not “born to run”…but you should be able to, and should check in on that from time to time. James’ talk elaborates on that, which you can view here.
  • Lots and lots of play.

That’s my 2 cents; what do you think?

3 thoughts on “What is a “generalist” anyway?

  1. Great post as always. I love the philosophy as much as the science, especially when it’s about both life optimization AND fitness optimization. Sometimes the hardest part of training is not figuring out what to do, but knowing how much is too much and when a Jack of all trades can take a few months to focus on dead lifting for muscle joy and not just PRs. Hope I get to train with you someday.

    1. Thanks Kevin; glad you enjoyed the post and I think that if you’re don’t think about the big picture, you miss most of the good stuff training has to offer. Cheers!

  2. Thanks for the post as always. I have enjoyed reading about your work and ideas for awhile now (through reading Keith Norris’ blog). For many years I was in prison and exercise was about maintaining my physical safety and mental stability. I discovered Heavy Duty after injuring my shoulder doing something stupid, and stuck with it for a long time. I also ran two or three times a week for 3-5 miles, occasionally further, and did a lot of yoga and some marital arts. For fun I played volleyball. I was never super good at any of these things, but proficient and definitely above my own starting levels by a long shot. Now I have been struggling to find the motivation to exercise, but have recently taken up karate for fun and have starting using various HIT approaches for muscle. Now I’ve been looking at both Ido Portal’s sequences and reading a lot about just being outside and unstructured play. My goals for the year are more walking, more movement stuff, more fun, continuing HIT and karate and reconnecting with why I am doing it all. It is easy to work out when I think someone may be attacking me or when I will go crazy if I don’t! I never had much fun doing it though!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s