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The Modern Day Renaissance Man

Soulskill posted more than 3 years ago | from the likes-all-the-major-sports-plus-polo dept.

Education 59

Kilrah_il writes "The Not Exactly Rocket Science blog has an interesting piece about Erez Lieberman Aiden, a scientist that is frequently hopping from one field to another, including 'molecular biology, linguistics, physics, engineering and mathematics.' This is in contrast to the prevailing trend of specializing in a specific field. 'I think a huge amount of invention is recognizing that A and B go together really well, putting them together and getting something better. The limiting step is knowing that A and B exist. And that's the big disadvantage that one has as a specialist – you gradually lose sight of the things that are around. I feel I just get to see more,' Aiden said. The post shows how failure to map antibodies led to an important discovery of the 3D folding of DNA and how the study of irregular verbs created a new scientific field."

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59 comments

You need specialists and generalists (4, Insightful)

timeOday (582209) | more than 3 years ago | (#36403786)

Yes, generalists are important for the reasons stated in the blurb. But specialists provide grist for the mill of generalists - you can only investigate different combinations of known components for so long.

Re:You need specialists and generalists (1)

Max Romantschuk (132276) | more than 3 years ago | (#36404050)

Yes, generalists are important for the reasons stated in the blurb. But specialists provide grist for the mill of generalists - you can only investigate different combinations of known components for so long.

Indeed. I am a generalist myself, working a lot on integrating stuff. Sometimes it's people, sometimes it's code, sometimes pieces of information. But without the rest of our team at work I'd probably be a lot less useful. Glue is useful to put pieces together, but build something out of glue only and you'll get a shapeless blob...

I know I'll likely never be really fundamentally great at anything. I'm too easily bored... So instead I try to be good at everything, and use that to my advantage. At least I'll likely never be out of a job.

Re:You need specialists and generalists (1)

trum4n (982031) | more than 3 years ago | (#36404190)

I work the same way as you, but my field is electrical engineering. I also work on cars, so the natural next step was a homebrew electric car. My computer skills led to an in dash computer to control media and monitor the batteries, motor and controller. My chemist side wants to build my own batteries, but my smart side knows I'll probably die or be grievously harmed doing so. Projector lenses and LED emitters should make decent headlights.... Yea I'm crazy, but at least I'm not afraid to use it!

Re:You need specialists and generalists (1)

ryantmer (1748734) | more than 3 years ago | (#36404250)

Wow, you sound remarkably similar to me, except replace all the past tense verbs with future tense :)

Re:You need specialists and generalists (1)

the_hellspawn (908071) | more than 3 years ago | (#36406242)

Wow, you both sound like me on Adderall. Now just to get that prescription...

Re:You need specialists and generalists (1)

History's Coming To (1059484) | more than 3 years ago | (#36404470)

Feynman was renowned for crossing disciplines - aside from physics he would sit in on biology classes (and once asked a library if they had a "map of a cat" to aid his studies), learned the bongos to a respectable level, taught himself to paint semi-professionally and learned a great deal about locksmithing and safe design while working at Los Alamos. Yes, he was a physics specialist, but an inquiring mind will always find distractions, and sometimes those distractions will lead to interesting developments in one field or another.

Hardly a renaissance man... (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36403796)

...unless he's also good at painting, sculpture and anal sex.

Re:Hardly a renaissance man... (1)

jollyreaper (513215) | more than 3 years ago | (#36403910)

Hardly a renaissance man... ...unless he's also good at painting, sculpture and anal sex.

He knows it's better to give than receive.

Re:Hardly a renaissance man... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36404886)

I've got all three [goo.gl] for you. A genius of a man who has inspired countless others, and one from our modern age, no less.

Re:Hardly a renaissance man... (1)

tverbeek (457094) | more than 3 years ago | (#36405902)

Disregard the sexual requirement (it's optional, actually), and the AC has a point. The Renaissance Man of the Renaissance was not just a general scientist but also an artist and probably a philosopher.

As someone who holds both a BS in Computer Science (minor in Philosophy) and a BFA in Illustration (minor in Digital Media), I have a rather obvious personal bias that tells me that such people are highly valuable. Not that the employers I encounter seem to share that opinion.

why most of us can't be a renaissance man (3, Insightful)

simoncpu was here (1601629) | more than 3 years ago | (#36403846)

Jumping from field to field to pursue your passion sounds great, but unfortunately, most of us need to work. I think most geeks would opt to become a "Renaissance Man" given enough funds. :)

Re:why most of us can't be a renaissance man (5, Insightful)

royallthefourth (1564389) | more than 3 years ago | (#36403938)

You don't need to be paid to work in a topic to read a couple books on the subject. All those books college students read (and better ones than that) are available to be purchased and read by anyone, so if there's a subject you know little about, go for it! I majored in computer science, but since school I've managed to get a basic handle on continental philosophy, classical economics, medieval history, literary criticism, and psychoanalysis in just a few thousand pages. There's always more to know, and I'm looking forward to reading about edible plants in my region, organic farming techniques, and the status of women in former Soviet republics.

Get some books!

Re:why most of us can't be a renaissance man (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36404278)

If the definition of renaissance man is broadened to mean being well-versed in many subjects, then yes, any bright individual can become one in their spare time.

It normally means that the person is a useful contributor to many fields, though. (Ripped right from wikipedia: "When someone is called a Renaissance man today, it is meant that he does not have only broad interests or a superficial knowledge of several fields, but rather that his knowledge is profound and often that he also has proficiency or accomplishments in at least some of these fields and in some cases even at a level comparable to the proficiency or the accomplishments of an expert.") That has become increasingly more difficult over the centuries, as the sort of contributions you can do with a self-educated background / in your spare time / in the garage / without lots of funding have been covered by others. It's not impossible, and it doesn't necessarily require absolute genius, but it does take a lot of time to achieve.

Re:why most of us can't be a renaissance man (1)

ShakaUVM (157947) | more than 3 years ago | (#36407726)

It doesn't mean a Renaissance Man is a contributor (this is often an arbitary thing anyway), but simply that a person has a good level of understanding in a lot of subjects. The latter is certainly possible - the former, perhaps not so much, unless you partner with someone else in the field. Publishing in a different field is difficult if you don't know the conventions.

What Clippo would say... (2)

elsurexiste (1758620) | more than 3 years ago | (#36404286)

...I'm looking forward to reading about edible plants in my region, organic farming techniques, and the status of women in former Soviet republics.

It seems that you are trying to create a farm labored by women from Eastern Europe at minimum wage, perhaps even a cult. Need some help with that?

Re:why most of us can't be a renaissance man (1)

metlin (258108) | more than 3 years ago | (#36405180)

The point is, while you may gain a superficial understanding, you will not ever be an expert in the subject to understand some of the more complex (and often, worthwhile) problems.

I find math to be an excellent example. Sure, you can learn all kinds of stuff about math on a superficial level. But if you want to prove the Poincaré conjecture or Fermat's last theorem, you're not going to be able to do that overnight, and certainly not without dedicating a lifetime to the problem (and even then, you'll fail).

Renaissance men are great -- and we all aspire to be that way. But the reality is that we can only focus on any one thing. We may be able to dabble in many others (as distractions, nothing more), but our real dedication can only be in one area, unless you're a polymath and a savant.

Re:why most of us can't be a renaissance man (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36406438)

> But if you want to prove the Poincaré conjecture or Fermat's last theorem, you're not going to be able to do that overnight, and certainly not without dedicating a lifetime to the problem (and even then, you'll fail).

Didn't Grigori Perelman use combined math and physics to solve Poincaré conjecture instead of focusing into math? Also he used less than a decade to solve it, so you can hardly call it a lifetime.

Re:why most of us can't be a renaissance man (1)

metlin (258108) | more than 3 years ago | (#36406494)

Most mathematicians, even the pure one, have a knowledge of applied math related to their domain. This is inevitable. But even so, it was not something radically different, it was something concretely related to his area of expertise.

Secondly, you cannot just count the amount of time he took to solve the problem. He has been a mathematician all his life -- only considering the time that he spent solving the problem is disingenuous at best.

Re:why most of us can't be a renaissance man (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36408794)

You seemed to have missed the point entirely. Science is accessible to all, but you have to have skills to observe, associate one's observations, as well as to theorize. It can't be overemphasized that serendipity is often the catalyst to discovery and those who simply look at mundane things in a novel way are apt to stumble upon things that have eluded very highly focused minds that were just perhaps focused on the wrong observation. We all ride in elevators, but it takes an Einstein to observe some relatively simple, yet fundamental aspects of related accelerations to make fundamental conceptualization of how gravity distorts space-time.

The other important thing to realize is that there is simply a lot we don't know, so if you are a keen observer you may well discover something quite novel. This is the advantage of a good education and a lot of very different skill sets. With them one may put 2 and 2 together in ways that others hadn't previously foreseen. For example, there are many different proofs of the Pythagorean theorem, one of which was developed by none other that James A. Garfield, as far as I know the only presidential proof. The fact that Garfield was not a mathematician, but a politician hardly detracts from the correctness of his proof.

Most of us aren't Renaissance men because we are simply either not smart enough or too lazy to develop the talents that we do have. You have to keep in mind that our modern society seems to value being self-righteous more than actually being right, or at least judging from the difference in press coverage say for a Sarah Palin as compared to most mathematicians.

Re:why most of us can't be a renaissance man (1)

AthanasiusKircher (1333179) | more than 3 years ago | (#36408854)

The point is, while you may gain a superficial understanding, you will not ever be an expert in the subject to understand some of the more complex (and often, worthwhile) problems.

It depends on what you mean by "complex" problems, which I think you are using as a synonym for specialized problems. In that case, your argument is a bit circular -- specialists will only ever have the capacity to understand and solve specialist problems.

But "complex" problems are often ones that may not even be seen as "problems" by the specialist, or they may be assumptions that are just taken for granted or even assumptions that are admitted to be limitations, but everyone in a field uses them, so no one looks beyond them. Basically, a specialist may have the focus to work out the intricacies of some "problem" that has been identified as critical importance to the specialists in a given field, but yet not be able "to see the forest from the trees," as it were. If you look at many of the major advances of science over the years, they often involved some thinker questioning some fundamental assumption (often not from a very "specialized" perspective) or tackling a problem from a perspective or using a methodology that all the specialists in a field (working on their own complex problems) would find problematic or even ludicrous.

I'm not saying this happens all the time. But it is a fundamental way that science actually solves truly complex problems, some of which are known problems to specialists and some of which aren't even identified as problems to specialists until it is pointed out by someone with a broader perspective.

Renaissance men are great -- and we all aspire to be that way. But the reality is that we can only focus on any one thing. We may be able to dabble in many others (as distractions, nothing more), but our real dedication can only be in one area, unless you're a polymath and a savant.

I think if most people were actually honest with themselves, they actually understand a much smaller segment of knowledge than they would like to admit. And they are usually actively fluent in an even smaller subset that they can actively call up and use at a given time without preparation. One sees this often when very bright specialists (e.g., university professors) try to teach a survey course or a fundamentals course and stumble over details. They aren't just a specialist in their discipline, or even in a subdiscipline, but often a large segment of their active knowledge is only material that they need to know for their specific research.

This is only reasonable, given the limitations most people have on memory, time to become familiar with very specialized literature and research, etc. In my view, the specialist already is often even much more specialized than we like to pretend, and one can already make broader leaps in a discipline by having a little bit of knowledge in a number of subdisciplines, rather than having all one's knowledge focused on a few related research projects.

The "generalist" is merely an extension of this trend. The generalist can never know all the literature and research in three or four or more disciplines any more than the average specialist can actually know all the literature and research in his/her own discipline. But the generalist has the advantage of being familiar with different methodologies and approaches from different disciplines, which are often much more useful for solving complex intractable problems than a lot of narrowly focused experience in only one discipline.

Re:why most of us can't be a renaissance man (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36404008)

"Renaissance Man"? Call me when he writes a good symphony, a novel, paints a masterpiece, or makes a contribution to philosophy.

Everything he's attempted for the exception of linguistics is a physical science. I mean please, how different is physics, mathematics and engineering? Molecular biology? That's pretty much "physical biology". And linguistics I've seen treated as a branch of mathematics.

He's surely gifted and makes me look like a brain damaged retard, but "Renaissance Man", no.

Re:why most of us can't be a renaissance man (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36404226)

Great, there will always be jealousy masked as negative comments towards other successful geeks. I must be new here.

Re:why most of us can't be a renaissance man (1)

flaming error (1041742) | more than 3 years ago | (#36404028)

The reason most of us are not free to "jump from field to field" is because we have debts and dependents.

So young'uns, you have choices. Be a caregiver, be a debtor, be a polymath. Pick no more than two.

Re:why most of us can't be a renaissance man (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36404624)

In that case, can I pick one?

Re:why most of us can't be a renaissance man (1)

blue trane (110704) | more than 3 years ago | (#36404924)

The logical inference is that debt holds back scientific progress. Where does debt come from? Banks attach it to money creation. Therefore, if govt creates debt-free money, more ppl can be polymaths or unimaths or whatever they want to be, and standard of living will increase faster than if we trust to the free market.

Re:why most of us can't be a renaissance man (1)

flaming error (1041742) | more than 3 years ago | (#36405224)

I totally agree with the sentiment.

> standard of living will increase faster than if we trust to the free market.
I think you mean it will increase faster when we trust to the free market. Because fractional reserve banking is not a free market, it's a fraudulent Ponzi scheme.

> if govt creates debt-free money
Letting the market choose a tangible commodity for a currency seems far more sound than having the gov't inflate an unbacked money supply at its own discretion.

Re:why most of us can't be a renaissance man (2)

TapeCutter (624760) | more than 3 years ago | (#36408522)

Letting the market choose a tangible commodity for a currency seems far more sound than having the gov't inflate an unbacked money supply at its own discretion.

Why do so many people think inflation was non-existant under the gold standard?

Re:why most of us can't be a renaissance man (1)

flaming error (1041742) | more than 3 years ago | (#36411912)

Because the technical definition of "inflation" is expansion of the money supply.

What most people call inflation now is really just a symptom. Rising prices come from weakened purchasing power which comes from the increase in supply.

When people traded a tangible commodity, the supply would inflate as more of that commodity was produced, and deflate as the commodity was consumed or stockpiled.

The size of the money supply was dynamic, but changes tended to be modest and went both up and down.

ps - My original post said nothing of "the gold standard". A "standard" is not a tangible commodity. Gold is. Government-issued notes backed by government-issued promises is not.

Re:why most of us can't be a renaissance man (1)

TapeCutter (624760) | more than 3 years ago | (#36414902)

Because the technical definition of "inflation" is expansion of the money supply

You mean like when the Spanish looted S.America's gold they doubled the gold reserves of Europe.

A "standard" is not a tangible commodity. Gold is. Government-issued notes backed by government-issued promises is not.

Money always has, and will always be, founded on an intangible commodity called "trust". If you trust gold more than bank notes then nobody is stopping you from converting you paper money to gold, sea shells, or whatever it is you personally trust as a token of exchange. Sure, that might be a good decision if the apocalypse happens tomorrow or next week, but in the meantime you will have enourmous difficulties getting a supermarket cashier to trust your gold enough to swap it for groceries.

Re:why most of us can't be a renaissance man (1)

flaming error (1041742) | more than 3 years ago | (#36414972)

> You mean like when the Spanish looted S.America's gold they doubled the gold reserves of Europe.

Exactly, that did inflate their money supply, and once it all worked its way into their economy it would have halved the gold's purchasing power.

> Money always has, and will always be, founded on an
> intangible commodity called "trust"

Citation needed. But you won't find it, because you're absolutely wrong.

We started out bartering tangible commodities, no trust required. Then in time we standardized on certain ones, still no trust required.

"Trust" didn't come into the picture until paper did, and even then it was more because of Legal Tender laws imposed on the market than out of "trust".

If the supermarket cashier won't take gold it's for practical market reasons, not because the gold has failed to earn her trust.

Re:why most of us can't be a renaissance man (1)

elsurexiste (1758620) | more than 3 years ago | (#36404216)

Agreed. It's mostly a matter of time and money. If you have both, you can be a generalist. Today I'm taking a few courses on Sociology, learning an instrument, a foreign language, and doing engineering work: when I had a girlfriend, she and my job was all I could handle.

Re:why most of us can't be a renaissance man (1)

darronb (217897) | more than 3 years ago | (#36404676)

Funny, it's my wife that enables me to be the workaholic I really want to be. She gets annoyed if I'm sitting on the couch... so I'm always working.

I started off in software. I then jumped to firmware, FPGAs, electronics, and PCB design... now I'm slowly adding mechanical and manufacturing processes.

I've watched a lot of EE-only or software-only people design horribly sub-optimal designs basically because they only used what they know. By at least being exposed to other fields, you can do much better design work and apply the strengths of each discipline to what your trying to do. If you're actually good at a couple disciplines, then amazing things happen.

Dysfunctional design happens even in companies where you supposedly have a team of these different disciplines. Individually, the workers don't know what they don't know... so unless a design element happens to come up in a meeting, you don't get the full benefit of a team of experts.

Re:why most of us can't be a renaissance man (1)

ShakaUVM (157947) | more than 3 years ago | (#36406992)

Being a renaissance man can be good for your career. Easy examples are math, physics, and art with computer science, or basic layout/design skills learned in journalism applied to web site design.

But more esoteric cross-studies can be valuable as well. A friend of the family, Dr Bart Kosko, a rather preeminent EE professor at USC, drew a lot of inspiration for his chosen specialization, fuzzy logic, from his undergraduate background in philosophy, as well as his Buddhism.

Going outside of your field can give very valuable insights in your field.

All kinds (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36403880)

"A smart know knows a lot about a little, and a wise man knows a little about a lot."
It takes all kinds...

Re:All kinds (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36403988)

Wisdom != Knowledge.

Re:All kinds (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36404814)

Yes, but Correlation != Casuation.

Specialization is not for insects... (3, Insightful)

mlts (1038732) | more than 3 years ago | (#36403906)

Contrary to Robert Heinlein, specialization is not for insects. Especially in fields where not one single person can have all the details.

This doesn't mean education other than the field of study is pointless. It is important to know something about biology, nuclear physics, math, and other items. However, trying to do a career as a jack of all trades means that one ends up a commodity, competing without any real advantages.

Specialization keeps people employed. For example, I know guys still doing SAP Basis administration. Unless the company they work for wants to completely chunk most of its internal workings, those guys are not going anywhere.

A balance needs to be reached. Being a one trick pony is bad. So is a jack of all trades. So, it doesn't hurt to always keep versed in multiple items. So, if SAP gets phased out, one can always use cross skills learned from Basis administration as a DBA. If the DBA game doesn't work out, there is always development.

Re:Specialization is not for insects... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36404810)

specialization does becomes obsolete..and...specialization does not assure long term employment

for example
Neanderthal stone tool makers..good at chipping away at rocks ..dead end job
pdp-8 assembly language programmer..good at assembly.....dead end job
cod fisher...good at depleting the cod fisheries ... dead end job ...list goes on and on

i have made a successful career of being a systems thinker, systems tinkerer...a non-specialized junkyard warrior

this has required a life time dedicated to being a student, one who learns, one who questions
and
applying it all at the 'wicked' problems

there is a big difference between
a jerk of all trades
and
jack of diamonds of all trades

one result of solving 'wicked' problems is am the inventor of a patent that combined, computer science, rf technology, human auditory perception,operational applications, optic based gyros, human cueing reflexes, and a few other 'specialties'....

everyone has special gifts that they need to apply to their fullest
i find mine

if
        you use your gifts
then
        you and others prosper
end_if

Re:Specialization is not for insects... (1)

fotoguzzi (230256) | more than 3 years ago | (#36408574)

You may be a
Renaissance
Man
but you are no typesetter.

Re:Specialization is not for insects... (1)

base3 (539820) | more than 3 years ago | (#36406598)

Specialization keeps people employed. For example, I know guys still doing SAP Basis administration. Unless the company they work for wants to completely chunk most of its internal workings, those guys are not going anywhere.

Isn't SAP Basis (and PeopleSoft, JD Edwards, and the like) I administration fairly easily outsourced, especially with consolidated data centers and companies moving their databases to "the cloud"? I would be afraid of being commoditized and to that end be working on becoming a line-of-business expert (which the folks you know might already well be).

Re:Specialization is not for insects... (1)

Ol Olsoc (1175323) | more than 3 years ago | (#36415180)

Spoken like a true specialist! As a person who worked in many barely related fields, I suppose you'd think of me as a Jack of all trades. That's sort of wrong. I'm very, very, good in all my fields. A problem with so much of American business and academia is that there is an attitude that a person can only be an expert in one thing at a time. That's a first class way to make bad decisions.

I know next to nothing about everything... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36403914)

So I'm better then him!

Take a look at IDEO's Philosophy. They got it righ (4, Insightful)

Metsys (718186) | more than 3 years ago | (#36403934)

IDEO has a really good philosophy about the type of people they hire to work in their firm. They refer to these types of people as T-shaped People. T-shaped People have a broad understanding of almost everything, but there's one thing that they are pretty darned good at. That allows some who is an experienced and knowledgeable engineer to innovate and collaborate with designers, programmers, fine artists, psychologists, or anyone one else in their team, and as the article states, that it allows them to innovate better because they understand more about the world around them.

So basically a T-shaped person is a hybrid between a specialist and a generalist. You do need people who have a deep understanding of one subject to get stuff done, but a broad understanding of everything else to communicate with people who have deep knowledge in their own field.

Re:Take a look at IDEO's Philosophy. They got it r (2)

meburke (736645) | more than 3 years ago | (#36404812)

For a lucid argument on the need for generalists, read "Critical Path" by R. Buckminster Fuller.

Re:Take a look at IDEO's Philosophy. They got it r (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36407952)

Yes, there are some skills (like troubleshooting, time management, organizing skills, influence building, and others) that are very useful in a generic way because they carry over to many other fields.

Once a person has mastered a couple of those they are able to not only deliver their own contribution, but seem to deliver much more by having an additional ability I'll call "synergy", where they just seem to be able to "get things done" by talking to the right people, asking the right questions, and working on the right things themselves.

Key to this in my opinion is the ability to foster mutual respect with diverse people - especially people that are experts in their particular fields.

Specialization is for Insects. (3, Interesting)

GuruBuckaroo (833982) | more than 3 years ago | (#36404154)

Robert Heinlein put it best:

"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."

Re:Specialization is for Insects. (1)

circletimessquare (444983) | more than 3 years ago | (#36404950)

i don't know how to write a sonnet

shit, i'm screwed

Sonnets in a nutshell (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36406838)

A sonnet is a rhyming poetic form characterized primarily by having 14 lines total broken into multiple stanzas.
The two main forms, Petrarchan vs. Shakespearean, differ both by structure and rhyme scheme - the Shakespearean form ends with a couplet (and often the moral), where the Petrarchan sonnet ends with a six-line stanza.

(lines which rhyme are represented by the same character)
Shakespearean (what most people think of when they think "sonnet" and are not speaking specifically of Italian verse):
a
b
a
b

c
d
c
d

e
f
e
f

g
g

Petrarchan (second most common, but second by a long shot in English - most common in Italian):
a
b
b
a
a
b
b
a

c
d
e
c
d
e

Hope this completes your quest to be a complete human. I still need lots of work on "butcher a hog, conn a ship, set a bone, fight efficiently" and while I might be ok on "die gallantly", it's hard to know, being difficult to practice repeatedly.

Re:Sonnets in a nutshell (1)

circletimessquare (444983) | more than 3 years ago | (#36407256)

i can return the favor

grasp your chest, point at the sky, and profess your love to a woman a child or a country

there, you've died gallantly

Re:Specialization is for Insects. (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36405842)

1. Change a diaper
The disposable or reusable kind? The reusable kind is harder to use.
Changing a disposable diaper is trivial, and with any experience (or google) it's easy nowadays.

2. Plan an invasion
Video games. Most people can do it, few do it very well.

3. Butcher a hog
To some extent most people could, but pigs these days aren't the same ones from 50 years ago. Carve some edible parts from a hog? Sure, anybody hungry enough could, so long as it's not against their religious beliefs.
Hogs in the past were much larger and had significantly more body fat. They were used almost entirely to make fat, since it was useful for everything including explosives (synthetic oils hadn't become widespread). Pigs these days are much leaner.

4. Conn a ship
Most people are licensed to drive. Commanding a ship isn't quite as difficult as sailing by oneself, unless we're talking galleons, which nobody in their right mind sails. It's outdated, and today's extreme should be, "fly an airplane" or "get a class A license with hazardous materials endorsement".

5. Design a building
Most people have played the sims, and designed a building. However, it's not a practical skill these days since designing your own building is much more expensive than buying a home built cheaply from a template. Or live in an apartment.

6. Write a sonnet
Music is much more commonplace, and writing music isn't very hard.

7. Balance accounts
Most people have failed this. Anyone who isn't in debt up to their shoulders should give themselves a pat on the head.

8. Build a wall
The hardest part is making it look professional. It's a project that would take most people under a week.

9. Set a bone
Generally discouraged these days, unless you're lost in the shrinking wilderness and have no choice. Upon arriving back at civilization a hospital would probably have to break the bone again and set it correctly.

10. Comfort the dying
It only requires caring and being emotionally grown up. People who can't comfort the dying are too distraught or young. A bigger issue in modern times is when enough is enough and whether dying should have dignity or be prolonged to the absolute last second.

11. Take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure
School, college, employment. Except most people don't pitch manure for work.

12. Program a computer
This is mentioned in the same breath as conn a ship? Must be a subtle reference to pirates.
Most people can, very few do it exceptionally well. Like most things.

13. Cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly
Gee, pa you cooked some tasty bear. Too bad he got ya.

False dichotomy (1)

caius112 (1385067) | more than 3 years ago | (#36404238)

Why would it be objectively better for people to be either specialists or generalists? Not only is there room for both but both are required to keep the world going.

Re:False dichotomy (1)

Savantissimo (893682) | more than 3 years ago | (#36412534)

Generalists are preferable because there is less communications overhead for one person than for a team. A generalist can move at the speed of thought, specialists move at the speed of staff meetings.

Like on the web (2)

Toe, The (545098) | more than 3 years ago | (#36404368)

...frequently hopping from one field to another, including 'molecular biology, linguistics, physics, engineering and mathematics.

Huh. That's exactly how I browse Wikipedia.

I've made edits to articles in all of those fields. Does that make me a Renaissance Surfer or something? ;)

The Dead Past (1)

improfane (855034) | more than 3 years ago | (#36404572)

Reminds me of a short story by Isaac Asimov called 'The Dead Past'. A society that directs its specialists can control its development.

Lost in translation (1)

recharged95 (782975) | more than 3 years ago | (#36404806)

The article makes a good argument, but most of the times a generalist will get either unfocused on a specific problem cause of the lack of specialization, or more commonly, just not being understood. The latter is very, very important for a person like Aiden to be successful. And when he is successful, great things are guaranteed to happen. And that's why he's right in his argument.

For example, I've been from theoretical physics, to oncology and medical imaging, to aerospace/control systems, to database design and financial systems, to lingustic/taxonomic systems, to photogrammetry, cinematography and data communications.... Most problems [of today] are pattern-based, and having a "deep dive" into all many subjects allows one to identify those patterns where as a specialist cannot. In real-world terms, a specialist can get/explain a problem under controlled conditions, under his/her terms (which isn't the real world). A generalist can explain/solve the problem in the real world, but may not be able to determine the underlying properties in order to optimize it or make it better [understood]. Imagine explaining how to optimize a web service to a post-doc's experiment in order for him to rewrite his output from matlab into a good json format in order to leverage multiple computers to get his calculations right, on time, for a time critical NRT simulation. A lot gets lost in the communication.

It's nice to figure out E=mc^2, but to get a nuclear reactor working requires a larger set of interdisciplinary skills.

And 99% of the time there's no way to explain solutions to other generalists and specialists cause, a. other generalists lack of domain knowledge (from not taking as deep a dive into subjects) and b. specialists have a specific mind set and limited nomenclature in explaining things. That's why specialists are more valued in society today, they can explain their "craft" to the point a group of folks can understand it. Hence, it's typical for generalists to be less valued (i.e. none of the glory).

If (what I call) a "deep-dive generalist" is understood, a lot of progress, epiphany, and invention will likely be the outcome. Aristotle, Newton, Einstein, and Carl Sagan come to mind.

Generalists vs Specialists - depends on the person (1)

rev0lt (1950662) | more than 3 years ago | (#36407636)

I find funny the notion that generalists are allways the "jack of all trades, master of none", and that the specialists are the guys doing the heavy lifting on the subject.

There are a ton of specialists, ranging from clearly incompetent or mediocre to acceptable professionals that aren't that good or specialized. Or that smart. There are some "generalists" out there that can clearly dominate multiple fields and put a lot of specialists to shame, but the usual trend is to shun "generalists" because they usually know as much or more than you do of your field, and it has taken them a lot less time to learn the same as you. Smart specialists are the exception, not the norm.

Yes I could be called a sort of generalist, in the sense that I work in multiple fields, and can beat most average "specialists" on those fields. I like to work on different things, and I like to learn and experiment. I also can understand that, in some areas of expertise, you really need to dedicate your life to it to actually be an expert, but most fields arent that demanding. And yes, I know too well how this notion can upsets some "specialists".

From my personal experience, I think the problem starts with the education system, it lowers the bar so the people with most learning difficulties can keep up, and dumbing down those more capable. It would be beneficial if the most capable students could get advanced classes, because they usually grow up to being unable to process and retain relevant amounts of information.

As ceo of a small company, I probably wouldn't hire someone like me, but not because the lack of "career specialty".I think that good generalists are difficult to manage, and are allways looking for the next challenge and get somewhat bored easily when the novelty wears off. They would be a perfect fit for a company with a big R&D department, not only because they could bounce ideas with the actual specialists, but because the interdisciplinary knowledge could be an important asset to the department.

I wonder if... (1)

fotoguzzi (230256) | more than 3 years ago | (#36408530)

...someone who frequently hopped from discipline to discipline invented frequency hopping.

Re:I wonder if... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#36414530)

Well, does a lady who did acting, math, inventing and shoplifting count?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedy_Lamarr
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frequency_hopping#Multiple_inventors

Two Words: Thomas Gold (1)

fygment (444210) | more than 3 years ago | (#36410316)

Specialists hated his [wikipedia.org] meddling when it challenged them. But specialists often fall in to lock step with incorrect theories for reasons that have more to do with the politics of career advancement rather than good science. (Look at the history of the theory of plate tectonics.) Generalists don't have the vested interest in succumbing to peer pressure that specialists do and so are free to explore whatever avenues of thought they think might be fruitful, free of the worry of achieving prominence in any given field.

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