What Is Generalism?
Generalism is the philosophy at the heart of my upcoming book How to Be Better at Almost Everything (Fall, 2018) which states very simply that you’ll have an easier (and more enjoyable) time getting ahead when you focus on breadth, rather than depth of skill. (Generalism is also the core of everything I teach with regards to fitness as part of Strong ON!)
Specialization is a snare that leads to less opportunity than people think, resulting often in injury, burn out, boredom, or worse. When I say specialization, I mean trying to be “the best” at something, of going all in on ONE area–like marathon running, powerlifting, etc. My argument is not that nobody should specialize. Some people should specialize, because some people are meant to be the best at something. But that was never me. And that was probably never you, either.
Generalism, on the other hand, is accessible to all. You don’t need to have been born with the “right” genetics to be a generalist, nor get an early start. You just need a system for acquiring skill, which this post will introduce you to. And then you need to practice. A lot.
Also, Generalism doesn’t mean “Jack of All Trades, Master of None.” A true generalist–what I would call “master-generalist”–is a master of many, and then good to great (or at least fairly competent) at anything else that interests them.
Generalism: 5 Core Principles
That are five principles I examine throughout my book, as ways of becoming generalist. These are not rules, so much as they are systems/reminders.
1 ) Skill Stacking > Specialization
The generalist combines skills to form a competitive advantage and creative spirit. To be good at many things, and then combining those things, grants more opportunity than trying to be the best at any one.
Imagine a good writer who is also a good marketer, versus someone trying to be the best writer, or the best marketer, but not both. That skill stack will prove more valuable than either specialization, always. Without getting too deep into why, let’s just say because I said so.
In fitness Skill Stacking > Specialization translates to GPP (general physical preparedness) > SPP (specific physical preparedness), as a foundational fitness practice. That is, general physical preparedness will confer greater health benefits than specialized training. The reason being well-roundedness and balance of effort.
It’s no secret that specialized forms of fitness lead to higher rates of injury, overuse, and over-training. They become unhealthy, as a fitness practice, which is not the goal of a generalist. The goal of a generalist is to use fitness always as a boost to health.
2 ) Repetition and Resistance
All skills can be developed through the principles of the weight room: Do reps, add weight. That is, practice what you want to get good at, while finding ways to increase the demand.
For fitness the principle is obvious. In my book, however, I attempt to show how it applies to other skills such as writing, music, martial arts, building a business, etc. But for now, yes–do reps, add weight. Get stronger, grow faster.
3 ) The Rule of 80%
If 100% is best in the world, a generalist should never go beyond 80% in anything. Why? Because almost anybody can get to about 80% in anything with 1 – 2 hours of practice a day, but to go from 80% to 90%, and then from 90% to 100% (which, frankly, isn’t going to happen) is where injury and madness lie.
Also remember: 80% is beyond great. Most of the time, you won’t need near that much skill in just one area.
4 ) Integration > Isolation
Focus on outcomes, not techniques. Learn songs, not scales. Follow a program, rather than practice exercises by themselves.
Integration > Isolation means not wasting time on learning techniques/skills outside of application. Instead, get clear on your goal, and the process that’ll move you from A to B.
Then, once you are IN process, learn whatever techniques/skills you need to get it done–effectively & efficiently, which is minimalism. This way you’re learning only the things you need to achieve the goal, and nothing more.
For example: A guitarist could spend time learning every variation of e chord, but why? If the guitarist wants to play an AC/DC song, what do they need to know an E13b7 chord for? No AC/DC song that I know has an E13b7 chord in it. The same could be said for bent pressing. Integration > Isolation.
5 ) A Good Generalist = a Short-Term Specialist
The irony of generalization is you don’t try to do everything at once. Rather, a good generalist is a short term specialist, focusing 60-80% of their effort on just 1 -2 areas at a time, and 20 – 40% of their effort on maintaining everything else. Then, once those initial areas are up to speed, the emphasis can rotate. And so on, and so on.
In other words, if you were to look at a generalist’s approach at any point in time, it would appear as if they’re specializing. But when you zoom out, the picture becomes clear. A good generalist is just a short-term specialist.
In fitness, this is why none of my programs/challenges/workouts as part of Strong ON! aim to accomplish everything at once, or at least not everything equally at once. They may feature a mix of things they want to accomplish, but an emphasis is always established.
Let’s finish off with this–a recent podcast episode where I go on about generalism. Hope you enjoy.
How to Be Better Than Most People, at Most Things
[The Pat Flynn Show]
Increase Productivity with Short-Term Specialization
[The Pat Flynn Show]