Can Generalists succeed in today’s world of accelerating Technology?
Then again, our current narrative of Specialization vs. Generalization seems too narrow. What am I missing?
Searches bring answers. And often from unexpected sources.
“Close to Where the Heart Gives Out” is Dr.Alexander’s first book. Discontented with his city practice, he relocates with his family to a remote island. The book is a warm first-person account of his experiences on the island.
How do a middle-aged doctor and his family of five (his wife is a doctor, and he has four young kids) settle on a distant island? How does the doctor set up his surgery? The book is a gentle, uplifting read – best perused with a hot cup of cocoa on a sleepy afternoon. It’s a pleasure to follow the doctor and his family as they become trusted members of the community. Do note that while this book was published in 2020, the story itself is a few decades old.
But, what does this good doctor have to teach us about being a successful Generalist?
It turns out to be plenty. The doctor also sheds light on work-life harmony, another topical subject.
If you are all ready, let’s dive right in.
Generalists vs. Specialists – an unnatural debate
Today, generalists get a bad rap. “You need specialization to succeed,” say the experts nodding in unison.
Perhaps, you have heard this too. While specializations are a good thing, why is generalization looked down upon?
There are three main – and mostly flawed – assumptions.
Assumption 1: Generalists are less curious; they know less than Specialists.
Generalists are often perceived as aggregators. They are believed to collate knowledge from everyone and summarize. To use today’s jargon – they don’t seem to add value.
But is it true that Generalists are less knowledgeable and curious?
Dr.Alexander presents an alternate view. Generalists are knowledgeable and curious – indeed, that is why they don’t want to be limited to a narrow field of study.
He shares his own example.
“I had hoped in general practice there would be a broad range of different illnesses to treat, diagnoses to explore.”Alexander, Malcolm. Close to Where the Heart Gives Out. Michael O’Mara. Kindle Edition
His discontent arises when he finds that while secure, his career does not have the variety he craves.
“My whole dream of general practice had been shattered by repetitive care and indifferent colleagues.”
It was only four years since I started in general practice and already the patterns of each day were becoming chronic, repetitive. The initial excitement of working independently, making my own diagnoses, writing my own prescriptions, had worn off and I was worn down by the sameness of daily routine. The only real variation was in the quantity of similarity; variety was rare.Alexander, Malcolm. Close to Where the Heart Gives Out. Michael O’Mara. Kindle Edition
Generalists are a curious and fun lot!
It’s the sheer joy of learning and curiosity that motivates the best generalists. Think about the Program manager you admire most. You’ll find her a beacon of curiosity, I promise.
This curiosity manifests outside your Job Description. For instance, Alexander is called upon to rescue a baby seal (!) from the beach. The experiment turns out to be fun.
When I get to the pier, word of mouth has ensured a small crowd has gathered to see what the doctor is going to do with this problem.
And to give advice: ‘Aye, Doc, you’ve a slippery problem there!’
‘Do we need the police too? There’s something fishy about this!’
‘Are you going to “seal” its fate, Doc?’
‘Always approach the blunt end first, Doc!’
Thanks, team! Sometimes it feels as though I’m the only entertainment on this island.Alexander, Malcolm. Close to Where the Heart Gives Out. Michael O’Mara. Kindle Edition
The book shines with curiosity and the doctor sees himself as a student of life, absorbing life lessons with warmth and humor.
While he is building his medical practice into a very reliable, people-friendly service, he also finds the time and energy to do other things. He learns how to fix a mantle, deliver sermons at the church, cut peat, and even do some gardening.
Alexander shows us an important truth. True Generalists are very curious. It’s the curiosity that drives them to choose a broader spectrum to play with.
Assumption 2: Generalists are uncomfortable with Technology
This assumption is an extrapolation of the earlier belief. Specialists know their niches, including any technology involved. How about the Generalists?
I saw this fantastic Tweet from Priya last week:
She was having so much fun; it felt like a second childhood to her.
Specialists often learn to earn more for themselves or their organizations. It’s a means to an end. As for generalists, they learn because they enjoy it. When learning is play, magic results, and because they have no constraints, they are super creative.
Generalists have less moats to guard!
There’s another challenge Specialists face when they believe they “own” their niche. When others stumble into their territory, they get upset. For instance, a UI developer may not appreciate having an outsider give him suggestions on coding – it’s his domain!
The Generalist doesn’t have this problem. She sees Technology as an enabler and is not constrained by any dogma.
Generalists often love Technology. They just don’t like being confined to one piece alone – they want the whole world to be their playground. They look at Technology more in Kevin Kelly’s mold than as a simple code or hardware.
Technology is all the accumulated usefulness that our minds invent.
What Technology is really about is better ways to evolve. That is what we call an ‘infinite game.’… A finite game is played to win, and an infinite game is played to keep playing.Kevin Kelly
Alexander extends this definition to anything that helps his patients. The doctor deploys the first ECG Machines and defibrillators on the island. He tries hypnotherapy to help his patients with behavior changes. He is open to supporting his repertoire with alternate medicines too. You actually find him looking at Technology in a much broader spectrum than you find specialists do.
Generalists love Technology. Their definitions are so much broader – that we sometimes mislabel a strength as a limitation.
Assumption 3: Generalists spend “unnecessary” time with their clients. It’s better to focus on the problem.
Generalists realize that they are working with and for human beings. For them, problems have both technical and perception aspects, and so should solutions.
Specialists may focus only on the aspects related to their expertise. So their relationship with the people can be limited. You see this when you go to a hospital and meet a set of experts, each looking at one aspect alone.
We need both of these approaches. Context decides which one to use.
Alexander believes in listening well for proper diagnosis.
How people say things is important – gestures with the story, pauses in the rhythm, these are where to look. Chosen words give half the story, between the words lies the truth.Alexander, Malcolm. Close to Where the Heart Gives Out. Michael O’Mara. Kindle Edition
A couple of years ago, my car suffered a breakdown far from home. I called my service engineer for suggestions. He asked me about my fellow passengers. When he realized I had some senior members traveling with me, he ensured a quick pickup for them first. Contrast this with someone who throws an SLA rule book at you. Who would you like to work with?
Program Managers who have a “people” mindset do an exceptional job. They understand the issues, emotions, and context allowing them to take appropriate actions. And clients love them for this.
If your customer doesn’t believe it, your solution has failed – even if it works!
A tourist comes requests, Dr.Alexander, to procure some medicines prescribed by her Harley Street Physician. She worries if these “exclusive medicines” will be available at a GP on this little island.
Alexander reads the prescription and discovers it’s a standard pill. But he realizes there’s something more intangible at play – the lady’s beliefs. And here’s how he handles the situation.
Belief in treatment is as important as the treatment itself, so I’ve not handed her the ‘pills’ from my island stock. From my patient’s viewpoint, she has paid for expensive specialist advice in Harley Street, which she believes in. The letter is carefully preserved, uncreased through her long journey north, giving her confidence while maintaining the connection with Harley Street and her Specialist.
Perhaps in the past, I would have highlighted how smart I was by explaining the simplicity of her condition and the potential cheapness of her treatment, asserting that she doesn’t need Harley Street to treat her, and countering the offense I felt reading the letter! But that doesn’t feel like the right thing to do anymore. Having lived on Eday now for nine months, the need to assert myself has become less and less relevant. It’s more important for my patient to believe in her physician and his view of the world. I don’t need to destroy that relationship in order to fulfil any need of my own ego.Alexander, Malcolm. Close to Where the Heart Gives Out. Michael O’Mara. Kindle Edition
Are you solving a problem or helping a life?
Generalists believe they are fundamentally helping people on their life journeys. They are not solving point problems. They focus on context and the big picture.
Here is Alexander throwing more light on this:
Perhaps the sense of moving back in time has helped, taking me back to my childhood in so many ways. Letting me start again. I can see people more easily now, people in a place, people in time. Not episodes of illness, puzzles to solve, but people to help as life turns around them.
Patients sometimes think they are just one among many, but they aren’t. Each life stays with us.Alexander, Malcolm. Close to Where the Heart Gives Out. Michael O’Mara. Kindle Edition
In summary: Generalists are needed more than ever today
Generalists are more curious than most people. They choose a generalist’s role because it doesn’t tie them down – not because they don’t have the smarts for a specialization.
They have an inclusive and far-reaching relationship with Technology. This allows the Generalist to both engage and dis-engage with Technology faster.
And finally, Generalists believe they are helping human beings on their journey, not solving a one-time problem. This brings in a whole different level of sensitivity to their play.
Indeed, if you face a challenge where you need a human approach, you’d probably be happier working with one of these True Generalists.
Now that we have this out of the way let’s move on to the other topic – Work-life harmony.
Some deliberations on Work-Life harmony:
As a rule, we find ourselves in one of these situations:
A: We have a Work-life imbalance
B: Our Work-life is in balance
C: We have achieved Work-life harmony
What do these mean in our everyday lives?
The first one is straightforward. Work has taken over your life, and you are feeling out of control. How and where you apply the breaks is all you need to focus on.
With time we hopefully move to a better Work-life balance. We plan for things outside our work life too. Our time on personal projects and family renders our lives more balanced. The only downside is that this can feel forced. We are artificially stringing activities together, and our life may not feel complete.
Work-life harmony is when work and the rest of your life come together seamlessly. You no longer have any qualms about how you live your life – you are enjoying it.
We need to be wary about one scenario, though. Let’s say you work crazy hours, but you don’t feel it because you like the work. In this case, you don’t have a work-life balance. You are a workaholic by choice. That isn’t bad, but it isn’t work-life harmony. You are still leading a one-dimensional life.
The power of acceptance
True work-life harmony is when there is a deep appreciation of the world around you. You are at peace with yourself and your work. Here, for instance, is Alexander talking about his life at the island:
So much of living well in this place is about learning to work with the elements. Pushing against them doesn’t work, but that doesn’t mean you can’t shape and meld them to your purposes.Alexander, Malcolm. Close to Where the Heart Gives Out. Michael O’Mara. Kindle Edition
Alexander melts himself into his environment completely. When the island needs a substitute preacher, he delivers sermons. He helps an ailing patient with his farming. He finds creative ways to spend quality time with his children, including during surgery idle times.
Add “preparation” to “acceptance” for a winning formula
Work-life harmony is about accepting one’s environment in total – even adverse events. Here is Alexander talking about storms:
There’s no sadness in this silence, just a sense of waiting, almost a dignity in the unmoving countryside refusing to be rushed into spurious activity. The storm is a fact, something inevitable, compulsory to life up here. Not to be fought against but endured, then put aside. Recovery isn’t necessary as, apart from the cosmetic effects, there is no real damage anywhere. Sheds, byres, houses are all intact, the people used to living with the inevitable, planning for it each year.Alexander, Malcolm. Close to Where the Heart Gives Out. Michael O’Mara. Kindle Edition
Note how beautifully preparation and acceptance are woven into that sentence. That is the very essence of success.
One of the critical aspects of work-life harmony is living happily with people around you.
Part of the essence of island life is bartering in kindnesses: one day I’ll do something to help you and no doubt, at some point in the future, you’ll do me a return favour. There’s no contract or bill of sale, just an understanding that when all is said and done, we need each other if we are to survive fifteen miles out to sea.Alexander, Malcolm. Close to Where the Heart Gives Out. Michael O’Mara. Kindle Edition
An “inclusive” view of Privacy!
And when you live in close association with people, work and non-work seamlessly roll into each other. For instance, he brings privacy and community sharing into a continuum.
Privacy applies to personal things like feelings and emotions. Practical things like who’s having a baby, who’s thinking about moving house, or who might need a little bit of paid work done, these things are not private. These things have practical implications and so are communal. A new baby will mean a child at school in due course, keeping the island school alive. Moving house will mean a day’s work for some of the men and so on.Alexander, Malcolm. Close to Where the Heart Gives Out. Michael O’Mara. Kindle Edition
We’ll wrap up with a final point on work-life harmony.
Good work-life harmony requires a lot of time for reflection.
We don’t spend enough time truly doing nothing these days.Alexander, Malcolm. Close to Where the Heart Gives Out. Michael O’Mara. Kindle Edition
He believes the island helps him slow down.
The island will teach you how to slow down if you let it. Let your heart rest, ease you down from the frenetic and teach you how to simply ‘be.’Alexander, Malcolm. Close to Where the Heart Gives Out. Michael O’Mara. Kindle Edition
It’s a gift he tries to pass onto his children too:
They’re used to me doing this now. Making them stop and look or listen or both. I don’t know if they’ll do this when they grow up but I want to try and teach them to step off the world just for a minute. To simply be alive in a landscape. By stopping, I would often see things I would have missed. Perhaps a shy treecreeper quietly spiralling up the trunk of an oak tree, searching for bugs hidden in the bark, or a stoat standing erect, looking and listening like me. Other times, I would study the way a single leaf shivers and shakes on a tree of motionless leaves in a summer calm. As if the leaf is trying to break free while everyone else is asleep. Maybe more of us should try and break free too.Alexander, Malcolm. Close to Where the Heart Gives Out. Michael O’Mara. Kindle Edition
Seeing life as a continuum,
Work is a part of life. Disease and wellness are part of this continuum. Life must and will go on.
You can’t help but see an ordinary day’s events in the context of time. Nothing is ever just an event or an incident. There isn’t an illness or disease. Each is part of something continuous, more meaningful.
Strangely, with all the true illnesses on the island, no one appears to consider they are unwell. They simply have complaints which need to be sorted to allow them to get on with life.Alexander, Malcolm. Close to Where the Heart Gives Out. Michael O’Mara. Kindle Edition
And there we have it – lessons from a doctor on living a generalist life and living in harmony.
Let’s close with a summary as always:
I think generalists have a larger role than ever to play in a world where Curiosity, Technology, and People aspects mingle actively.
We need the ability to laugh at ourselves – for we are always a student of life.
A positive attitude toward everything makes a difference. And we need to make sure our titles and assumptions don’t hold us back.
Work-life Harmony can be a reality – but it needs a rethink, not just a bandaid.
Reflection and Acceptance are critical to work-life harmony. Accepting your current circumstances and the environment is a precursor to any changes you’d like to make.
I’ll leave you with a beautiful quote from Alexander himself:
This book is my way of saying thank you to them for showing me the only important thing in life is how we treat each other. This is what our survival, our happiness, depends on and nothing more.Alexander, Malcolm. Close to Where the Heart Gives Out. Michael O’Mara. Kindle Edition
p.s: There’s one more aspect that’s covered brilliantly in the book. The book has excellent examples of how being vulnerable is a cornerstone of authentic living. Perhaps that deserves a post of its own – let me know if the topic interests you, and we’ll line it up.