Mental Models That Generalists Can Use To Win

Leonardo Da Vinci was the ultimate generalist

Generalists have all sorts of advantages relative to specialists, but being effective requires being familiar with a few specific ways of thinking.

You’d think that Nobel prize winners would be some of the most laser-focused people on Earth, right?

Well, it turns out they’re dramatically more likely to have hobbies when compared to their peers. From David Epstein’s Range:

Compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates are at least twenty-two times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician, or other type of performer.

He continues:

Nationally recognized scientists are much more likely than other scientists to be musicians, sculptors, painters, printmakers, woodworkers, mechanics, electronics tinkerers, glassblowers, poets, or writers, of both fiction and nonfiction.

That’s somewhat at odds with the “10,000 hour rule” and the hyper-focus and extended periods of deliberate practice advocated in Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

Maybe being singularly focused is overrated, and maybe… just maybe… having a broader perspective can give you certain advantages over those crazy-smart, hyper-specialized peers of yours.

But before we get to the goods…

What is a generalist?

Many people wince at the word “generalist” because, at its worst, it’s synonymous with “somebody with no actual skillset or specialty whatsoever.”

“Uh…. what do you even do?

But that’s obviously not what we’re talking about, so here’s an alternative definition:

A generalist is a person with a wider-than-average range of skills and a developed sense of how to apply them to new problems.

A stereotypical generalist is Steve Jobs, who combined an understanding of product, design, marketing, and sales to create and sell generation-defining products.

Inevitably, generalists have some sort of domain they work in (in Steve Jobs’ case it was consumer electronics), but they apply an unusually-wide, cross-disciplinary approach to how they do work.

Whereas a specialist is the best, and very often the only, person in the world who can solve a handful of extremely narrow problems, a generalist is “good enough” at a variety of things and can solve, or at least understand, many different types of problems across many different domains.

The specialist’s misguided approach to dating

Imagine for a moment that a super-talented software engineer believes their dating woes are the result of Tinder’s less-than-ideal matching algorithm.

“These matches are terrible! None of these people get me!”

Naturally, they’ll resolve to build a “better” dating app. Of course they will… building apps is their specialty.

Somebody who’s more of a generalist, though, may be able to see the problem through an engineer’s lens and ultimately conclude that better automation or a refined matching algorithm won’t solve the problem.

Instead, they may try on a psychologist’s lens:

“Your dating problems may be more of a psychological thing. You don’t think you’re worthy of love. Work on that. Also, you look like the unabomber in your photo. How about we try out a new picture?”

While the generalist-leaning person may never be as talented at programming or psychology as an expert in either field, they can basically grasp the gist of how each discipline would approach a specific problem and come to their own conclusion about which approach will be more effective.

But, okay, you kind of already knew that. So…

How do generalists get better at what they do?

If we want to expand our generalist war chest, how exactly do we do it?

Unfortunately, our formal education systems are unlikely to help much because while they often give us a chance to glimpse many different disciplines, they rarely focus on practicality.

Simple example: my high school forced me to learn Spanish, which is not terribly practical given that most of the people who live in the world’s fastest-growing economy speak Mandarin and outnumber Spanish speakers by roughly 2:1.

Many of our schools simply do not care about giving us the mental models that are most likely to yield amazing careers, universe-bending impact, and mountains of cash.

How generalists can train themselves

So, whereas a specialist may need to read as much research or literature in a single domain as possible, generalists train by doing two things:

  • Constantly learning new, cross-disciplinary lenses through which to see the world

  • Developing an understanding of when to apply each lens

In particular, we’re interested in learning those modes of thinking that are bound to actually be useful as opposed to just “interesting.”

So, we are left on our own to answer this question:

What are some of the most effective, practical mental models that generalists should know?

The first three mental models are ready here:

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