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Specialist And Generalist Knowledge: Get The Best of Both Worlds

by Sigmund Carlson 2 years ago in intellect
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The best way to improve productivity, focus, and business is T-Model for learning. Watch at Leonardo Da Vinci, Mozart, or Stephen Hopkins. They never stopped learning stuff from all disciplines.

Leonardo was a polymath, the epitome of Renaissance. Image by infobae.com

“The capacity to learn is a gift; the ability to learn is a skill; the willingness to learn is a choice,” Brian Herbert.

During evolution, several species developed different survival strategies. Some became more generalists and others more specialists.

Generalist species have broad niches. They adapted to different types of climates and diets. In this group are cockroaches, rats, dogs, tilapia, and humans.

However, being a specialist has its advantages. Koalas face little competition for eucalyptus leaves, their only food. Animals with varied diets nevertheless compete with many different species. In return, specialists are much more vulnerable to any change in the environment. Small climatic variations or alterations in its limited power supply can cause its extinction.

Biological niches are tricky to change, but we can apply their lessons to the intellectual sphere. My project is to be guided by the next T-model when it comes to developing new skills and knowledge. On the one hand, I recommend developing fundamental expertise in multiple areas. On the other hand, you’ll benefit from specializing in something.

An example of T-Method. You can design your own T.

Professional_fig1_317295445 Case Study Of A Small Scale Polytechnic Entrepreneurship Capstone Course Sequence — Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/T-shaped-Professional_fig1_317295445

Learn something about everything and everything about something.

Wider: Learn About The Thing You Hate The Most

"To develop a complete mind, study art science, explore the art of science. Learn to see, and you will realize that everything connects with everything else" — Leonardo da Vinci.

Surviving in a wild environment required multiple abilities. Our ancestors built hunting tools but also distinguished hundreds of types of plants. They made clothes to protect themselves from the cold and designed simple boats to navigate the rivers. They also found time to sculpt and paint.

Modern society, on the other hand, is trying to specialize in ever-narrower fields of knowledge. Laser focus on something has many advantages, of course, but it also contains vulnerabilities. Specialization restricts our vision and choice. When you only have one hammer, you tend to think that all problems are nails.

Highly specialized healthcare professionals often give more unsatisfactory recommendations, proposing treatments of their specialty without being conscious that there are efficient ones. Interventional cardiologists advise, for example, the use of catheters much more frequently than less specialized cardiologists, and patients tend to have better results.

In the intellectual field, the Nobel Prize is the most prestigious recognition, and many believe it is the result of full dedication to a unique task. However, the lab victors’ outline resolved that a hallmark of many of them is they have besides hobbies outside their field than their colleagues (detail). An example is Stephen Hopkins; he was able to talk about literature, arts, and God because he reached more out than others. Similar studies in entrepreneurs confirm that those that combine knowledge from different areas are more successful.

Great geniuses of history achieved their recognition by always crossing the human-made borders impose on knowledge. Leonardo da Vinci was an illegitimate son, which prevented his access to a good education and excluded him from the most profitable occupations of the time. Notwithstanding this, or perhaps thanks to this, he revolutionized multiple disciplines, from painting to medicine, sculpture, and engineering (detail).

Despite lacking formal studies, Da Vinci revolutionized many areas of knowledge: painting, sculpture, optics, anatomy, engineering between others. He also was concerned about animals. How Georgio Vasari stated in his master book Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects: “Leonardo, in one of their walkings throughout Florence, noticed a beautiful bird locked in a cage, he felt affliction and asks the owner for it. Paid the price, and immediately put it in freedom,” written in 1568, the Golden Age of Renaissance.

Creativity is about identifying connections between seemingly disparate elements. By exposing yourself to a higher number of knowledge areas, you’ll be more likely to find those new connections. You can start by designing your T; draw your strategies and your desire fields of knowledge. It takes no more than thirty minutes twice a week. Bussines improves every single aspect.

And the same applies to the sporting field. Athletes who specialize very early have shorter runs and suffer more injuries (detail); both our bodies and brains forged in a generalistic world.

Try to learn about different subjects and their connections. Think about the global and the particular, the practical and the philosophical. In short, chase down anything that stimulates your interest and tries to learn a little from many things.

Depth: Cultivate Your Deep Focus About Something

The Greek poet Archilochus affirmed in one of his texts that while the fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows a lot about one crucial thing. Thinker Isaiah Berlin wrote in the 1950s a famous essay based on this idea, entitled precisely the hedgehog and the fox. He classified famous authors as hedgehogs or foxes according to his worldview and his acting in it.

Traditionally there is a corrupt view of the fox, as it is considered typical of scattered and chaotic people. As we remarked previously, being a fox with several strategies and knowledge offers essential benefits, but we must also learn from hedgehogs. When attacked, they don’t stop to reflect on the best response; they roll up in a sharp fortress. It’s their only strategy, but it’s vital, and they execute it flawlessly.

I suggest that in addition to learning something about many things, you try to learn a lot about something. Select something that interests you and try to perfect it every day. Be the fox and the hedgehog.

A good idea would be guiding this more specialized learning according to the medieval professions’ approach, going a long way from apprentice to teacher. In the Middle Ages, the apprentice worked for a teacher while learning the trade, in exchange for food and accommodation. With enough dedication, he first became an officer. He could now travel and work on his own, but he could not adopt new apprentices. That privilege was reserved for teachers. For several years, the officer experimented with the techniques learned, until he created something that demonstrated his mastery of the craft: his masterpiece. From that moment on, he was a teacher.

I am not saying that this rigid structure of medieval guilds is the role model, but I do think we should approach our learning as if it were an art, and consider ourselves artisans, seeking mastery of a profession. To become teachers, people required an average of between eight and ten years of learning and practice, or a total of about ten thousand hours. And something similar is what modern studies conclude on the dedication needed to develop extraordinary skills.

The concept of ten thousand hours of a practice originated in a famous study on violinists, which tried to figure out the factors that separated extraordinary violinists from the rest. Intelligence and talent matter, but assuming a reasonable amount of both, the differential factor between the good and the remarkable was dedication. The best violinists were the ones who had practiced the most.

Ten thousand hours is still an arbitrary number, and the study clarifies that not only dedicated hours matter, but also the quality of the practice. Anders Ericsson, responsible for this famous study, coined the term deliberate practice, dependent on three factors that we will explore below (detail).

Intentional practice

The first factor is motivation. You must select some knowledge that inspires you to improve. If motivation fades over time, you need to change, but make sure you don’t alter your goals simply because the process is tougher than you thought.

The second is the picture of clear objectives for each practice session. In addition to clarifying what you intend to achieve in each session, you must select the appropriate difficulty. If you try something easy, you get bored and stagnant, but if it’s too hard, you get frustrated. Each session should explore something a little exceeding your current ability. The practice should be slightly uncomfortable, without becoming unpleasant. The ideal level of complexity to challenge your mind without getting frustrated.

And finally, the feedback. To learn fast, you must have quick feedback. There must be a direct connection between effort and outcome. Out of the question, if the result is good or bad, you will learn. Some skills reward you with immediate feedback. If you are practicing arching, the result of your actions is clear and direct. In other disciplines, you require more time, and it makes sense to find external coaches to give you that feedback in a specific practice.

And one last tip: If you can, teach what you learn. Several studies show that thinking about how you might explain your learning helps you remember more and pay attention to your learning process (detail). When you teach, two learn.

What have I discovered today? This is an excellent question to ask yourself on the pillow. Keep intellectual concern. Find something that stimulates your interest and commit to getting better.

Constant learning leads to not only higher cognitive reserve, but also a more fruitful life.


O’Leary, M. (2020). Classroom observation: A guide to the effective observation of teaching and learning. Routledge.

Prak, M., & Wallis, P. (Eds.). (2019). Apprenticeship in early modern Europe. Cambridge University Press.


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About the author

Sigmund Carlson

History is the tragedy of life; poetry the epitome.

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