Generalism for Digital Nomads – Podcast 029

In this episode B and Jack talk all about generalism. First, they present the connection between generalism and digital nomadism. After that, they present the definition of generalism, present the main benefits of this life philosophy. Finally, they conclude by talking about the hierarchy of skills as well as principles to use in your generalist pursue.

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1. Summary

1.1. Why are we talking about generalism in a podcast about digital nomadism

  • Generalism could be called a philosophy of life. In other words a general attitude towards life or a framework you use to live. And the reason why we are talking specifically about generalism in a digital nomad podcast is because it seems to me, this is one of the philosophies of life that digital nomads seem to subscribe to (regardless if they are aware of that or not). There are also other philosophies of life that digital nomads subscribe to that we would put more or less in the same basket of this digital nomadism ethos. These are things like stoicism, minimalism and self-development.
  • The reason why I think generalism fits well the digital nomad ethos is because there is this idea of the one-man band in digital nomad entrepreneur, also there is also this idea of the digital nomad as a person with multiple interests that want to achieve many things. After all, if you were to be a specialist (i.e. the opposite to a generalist) in a given thing would not make much sense to travel around so much. Would make much more sense to settle down in a place to focus and specialize better at that said thing.
  • So not only I wanted to talk about generalism because, as I said, it is something that many digital nomads subscribe to, but also because I think generalism is an interesting and useful perspective for life.

1.2. Definition of generalism

  • In its simplest definitions could be said to be the practice of studying many different things rather than specializing in one subject. Another way you can frame generalism is as being better than most people in most things, this translates into having a broad understanding of different areas and also focusing on width rather than depth. The generalist wants to be good at many things, but not the best at none of these things.
  • Generalism apply both within a skill (i.e. knowing different aspects of skill) as well as among different skills (i.e. knowing different skills)
  • This generalist perspective contrasts with the specialist perspective where you get really good at a very narrow thing. The final goal of a specialist is to be the best at a very specific area.

1.3. The benefits of generalism

  • Generalists can see the bigger picture better because they can analyse things using different things thus allowing them to make interdisciplinary connections that perhaps other people will miss
  • You can be more independent as a generalist because you know many areas thus depend on fewer people
  • As a generalist you will not fixate your identity on one skill, rather you are an individual that has many skills. This is arguably a better mental scheme to adopt.
  • If you take things to the extreme as a specialist does (or rather needs to do in order to understand a very narrow subject), can lead to an unhealthy/unhappy life. On the contrary, a generalist life seems to be more balanced since he does not need to take things to the extreme.
  • All things considered, some will argue that it is a losing game to be a specialist because at some point there will always be someone better than you in your area of specialization. Even if you are the best at something at some point you will not stay there for long.
  • Being a generalist do not require an early start in life and/or genetic predisposition since you are not aiming to be the best, rather you are just aiming to be good (which is a level of proficiency that most people can achieve with dedication).
  • You will fall for the trap of diminishing returns as a specialist but not as a generalist. This means that, as a specialist, the more you learn and specialize in a skill, after a certain point, the fewer benefits you will take out of it.
  • Usually, generalists are more appealing to the general public. Specialists are usually appealing only to other specialists in the same area
  • The people at the top positions in many industries are usually generalists rather than specialists. This goes back to the idea that generalists can see the bigger picture better.
  • You will be a more interesting person as a generalist since you will be able to talk about a broader range of things with other people
  • You can avoid burnout as a generalist since you will not need to go to the extreme in the same manner that a specialist do to learn a subject

1.4. Skills and their hierarchy

As a generalist you have learnt or will want to learn a number of skills/fields. Thus it is important to classify such skills in a sort of hierarchy of importance.

  • Meta skills: Skills that are basic for life and have a big carry-over effect over other skills. These are the foundational skills that almost anyone should have a good grasp at, independent of what you will want to do in your life since they will help across the board. Notice, that some of the skills listed are very basic and most likely you already learnt them by yourself or in school
    • Critical thinking (e.g. philosophical reasoning, scientific method)
    • Finances (e.g. personal finance, business finance)
    • Health (e.g. nutrition, exercise, etc.)
    • Productivity models (e.g. SMART goals, GTD task management, etc.)
    • Learning (framework to learn effectively)
    • Language (if English is not your first language; both speaking and writing)
    • Math (basic math)
    • Social skills (negotiate, network, etc.)
    • Computer skills (understand the basics of most things digital)
  • Interest skills: These are skills or areas of study that you are interested in. Ideally, you want to find a source of income around one or many of such interest skills. Also, interest skills are the only sort of skill that you may consider your so-called “match quality” (i.e. the compatibility between liking the skill and having a natural ability at it). Examples of interest skills would be things like snowboarding, history, coding, photography, etc.
  • Peripherical skills: These are skills that will allow you to improve the value proposition of your interest skills (especially in the context of your professional career). These are not necessarily things will you be so passionate about but they will help you a great deal with your interest skills. To figure out what are useful peripherical skills you can look at which skills the successful competitors in your niche use it and copy those. For example, if your interest skill is photography and you have a business in that area then perhaps peripherical skills that would make sense for you to learn are editing, the business of photography, photo location scooting, web design, etc.

1.5. Principles of generalism

Before we go into the principle that can help you in your generalist pursue I should give credit where credit is due. Most of the concepts I will talk about in the following section are not my ideas. The two main authors from which I borrowed the concepts are Timm Ferris based on what he wrote in his book 4-hour chef and Pay Flynn (not the business guru, but rather a fitness podcaster) and what he wrote in his book How to Be Better at Almost Everything.

A. Skill stages and skill cycling

As a generalist you will be juggling many skills at the same time, therefore it is important to categorize what is the goal (i.e. which stage the skill is at) of any given skill you are learning as well as know when to change the goal.

  • Skill stages
    • Maintenance/slow improvement stage: In this stage you are aiming to maintain a skill level or slowly improve it. In this stage, you are using the minimum effective dose in terms of frequency and resistance (we will talk about those later) to maintain or have a very slow improvement.
    • Acquisition/Paradigm shift stage: In this stage you are aiming to acquire a brand new skill or do a paradigm shift (i.e. substantially improve your expertise of the skills) in a skill you already have. In this stage you are using the optimum effective dose in terms of frequency and resistance. You can also appeal to a planned functional overreaching /immersion strategy (when you focus almost 100% of your time on a single skill) granted that you will also plan for a recovery period following that in order to avoid non-functional overreaching and burnout.
  • Skill cycling
    • You should cycle through the skills (the ones you already acquire and the ones you want to acquire) between each of the stages just mentioned from time to time. The idea of skill cycling is supported by two assumptions. The first one is that the maintaining/slowly improvement stage of a skill requires way less effort than acquiring/paradigm shift stage, thus this allowing you to add more and more skills to your knowhow over time. The second assumption is that by doing this skill cycling you will avoid burnout and also that many of the skills you improve on will have beneficial carry-over effects on your other skills.

B. Skill stacking

  • As a generalist you should aim to create meaningful skill stacks. The basic idea here is that skills in combination (i.e. skills stacks) are better than skills individually, since you can create unique skills combinations that translate into, in terms of business, a unique selling point. Skill stacking are especially favourable if the individual skills within a skill stack are complementary and have a positive carry-over effect on one another. 

C. Shot-term specialization

  • As a generalist you should specialize for a certain time in a certain skill. Put most of your energy by focusing on one or two skills at a time until they get to the desired level of proficiency (we will talk about that later). You have a short period of specialization (paradigm shift or acquisition) in one or two skills and maintenance in your other skills. Since acquiring a skill is harder than maintaining a skill it is ok to diminish the frequency and resistance of other skills in the short term to improve the focus skill.

D. Integration over isolation

  • As a generalist you should try to develop your skills in the same context in which you would like to use the skill later on (to the extent in which that is possible). In other words, try to practice with the goal (i.e. integration to the whole) of the skill acquisition in mind. Practise in integration informs what to need to isolate to get better at. Only practise individual parts of the skills in isolation if you aim to integrate those aspects of the skill in the future to achieve your goal. Practising parts of the skill in isolation only for the sake of learning is something that is only useful to specialists, not generalists.

E. Proficiency level selection

  • You should determine the level of proficiency in which you want to achieve with every new skill based on the goal you want to fulfil with such skill. As a rule of thumb, you would want to get AT MOST 80% as good as the best person in the world in your skills. 80% compared to the best in the world is way above average and it is already masterful. Going beyond this point is very much diminishing returns. Keep in mind that 80% of the best in the world is the maximum, not necessarily the goal;80% is already masterful way above the average. So whenever you get to this 80% mark this should inform your short term specialization and skill cycling.

F. Deconstruction, selection and sequencing

As a generalist you will deal with many skills/areas of study at once. Thus it is important to be mindful of how you will structure your learning of such skills. The three interconnect concepts below will help you with that.

  • Deconstruction: Understand the metastructure of the skills. in other words chunk down the different parts involved in the skill using a range of materials (syllabus courses, textbooks. Articles, expert opinions, etc). Thus you should be trying to understand the principles that are the basis for the specific techniques. You can ask experts a set of questions to deconstruct a skill and understand its metastructure
  • Selection: Understand which of the chucks of the metastructure are the most important. Learn those first and this will bring you the most results. Apply the 80/20 analysis to establish that. Also, think about which chunks of the skill are not being explicitly taught but are being implicitly done.
  • Sequencing: Figure out what is the sequence in which you need to learn the chucks of the metastructure in order to maximize efficiency. Assess if there is a necessary order in which you need to learn things in order to be able to learn at all (i.e. asses if it is linear skills). Focus first on the chunks of the skill you can pick up more quickly due to the other skills you already have or because you simply find it easy. By focusing first on the things that you can pick up quickly you will have early wins that will help you with motivation). Trust the sequence of learning but do some course correction along the way.

G. Frequency and resistance

These are the key variables that you always need to be changing in order to learn skills in the most optimum way as a generalist

  • Frequency: As a generalist you should determine the optimum effective dose of frequency for acquiring a skill or doing a paradigm shift on the skill. Also, determine the minimum effective dose of frequency for maintaining or slowly evolving in the skill. The right frequency is key for the compound effect in the skill development as well as keeping momentum. You should consider when increasing frequency will be counterproductive rather than productive due to burnout.
  • Resistance: As a generalist you should determine the optimum effective dose of resistance for acquiring a skill or doing a paradigm shift on the skill. Also, you should determine the minimum effective dose of resistance for maintaining or slowly evolving in the skill. Make sure you are increasing the absolute resistance over time to improve the skill. The increase in the resistance over time need to be made having the goal of the skill and level of proficiency desired. You should always be challenged when developing a skill and you should aim to practise the things that are essential, yet you are bad at (which are informed by the integration over isolation principle). Do not keep practising the things you are already good at.

H. Planning, scheduling and stacks

As a generalist you will be learning many skills at a time therefore it is important to be smart on how you will organize and your learning. The three interconnect concepts below will help you with that.

  • Planning: Create a plan for every skill you want to learn (e.g. milestones, deadlines, growth rate, estimated time to get to the desired level of proficiency, etc.) Preferably create a SMART goal for each skill.
  • Scheduling: Set in your schedule a time block for the development of each skill in order to insure consistency over time since this is a key factor for the compound effect to take place.
  • Stacks: Create real-life consequences related to the skills you want to learn in order to make your skill acquisition faster. Use both positive and negative conditioning in order to do so in terms of rewards and punishments.

I. Compression and encoding

As a generalist you will be juggling many skills at a time. Therefore it is important to have tools to quickly and easily recall information related to the skills you ready learned when needed.

  • Compression: Create a reference file on your laptop or smartphone with all the main principles of your skill. This file should be written by yourself in order to be easy to understand.
  • Encoding: Create rules of thumb for the skill and ways to rapid recall (e.g. acronyms and metaphors) things related to the skill.

2. Transcript

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3. Resources