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What Separates a Generalist and a Dabbler? (sebastianmarshall.com)
68 points by lionhearted on Dec 22, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 31 comments

I love thinking on paper. In this case, I’m not going to go back and edit this entry so it looks like I had it all along. No, I’d rather show you my thought process.

Actually, I'd rather read a well-thought out argument that has been edited than trying to parse your thought process. I ended up stopping halfway through.

> Actually, I'd rather read a well-thought out argument that has been edited than trying to parse your thought process. I ended up stopping halfway through.

Thanks for letting us know?

Seriously, the whole piece is 800 words. You didn't have time to read because you'd prefer 50 words shaved off with tighter editing... well okay, I understand if you're a busy guy that likes dense information.

But then you have time to post a snarky comment? You lost me there.

I read the whole thing, and I think your parent does have a point. If you don't mind some criticism:

That was my first guess – my first guess was that the difference between a generalist and a dabbler was that the generalist had some overarching theme or purpose, while the dabbler did not.

That was pretty redundant, even as a part of your thought process, since you'd already told us that earlier on. Just telling us that you don't think an overarching theme was it would have sufficed. And following that:

I don’t think that’s the answer.

You just said that a couple of sentences back. What I'm trying to say is that, while showing us your thought process did illustrate how you arrived at your conclusion, an outline of your thought process would still have read better if you had tightened it up some. Showing us your thought process by literally repeating it verbatim might strike some readers as self-indulgent.

Other than that, good points. :)

He has a point. If you are willing to take some constructive criticism: When writing an essay, consider every instance of "I", "my" and "you" as you would a global variable in code: it needs to be there only when that's the cleanest and most efficient way to express that thought. It has very little to do with being busy, and a lot to do with wanting to read stuff that's readable.

hvs did not say that he didn't have time to read it. Your writing style is simply horrible and incoherent and any sane person would stop halfway through.

That's unnecessarily harsh.

But I do agree that editing serves a purpose. There is a reason that good writers' essays, such as PG's, for example, are so durable through time: they have been finely honed, eliminating wasted words and poor analogies, to communicate an idea so purely that it captures the mind.

Sebastian's writing isn't poor. It's just not finished. There's a gem of an idea there, but it's still covered in the dirt and grime of poor syntax and wordiness. And like a diamond that goes unnoticed because it hasn't been polished, it will quickly be forgotten, under the massive heaps of poor syntax and crude wordiness that society, and the Internet in particular, generates every day.

He could find his ideas traveling farther if he polished his diamonds.

Another take: This was my favorite line in the piece. A reminder that even very smart people (I think Sebastian counts) have to work through things one step at a time.

And I enjoyed seeing the process unfold. I liken it to watching a painter as he works through a portrait, or maybe a screencast from a really good programmer.

tldr summary:

Could it be that the difference between a generalist and a dabbler is just saying “this is as done as it’s going to be” and shipping the work?

How I interpreted this: a dabbler focuses on several pursuits with each given an orthogonal mindset, perhaps making inter-field connections, but only incidentally and post-hoc; a generalist has one goal and learns the skills of several fields in the pursuit of that goal, focusing on new fields because of their connections to current work. Breadth-first vs. depth-first search, basically.

That assessment is itself often made post-hoc, though. The dabbler who hits on an interesting connection by chance is often retroactively written into history as a generalist who purposely scoured the world far and wide for that knowledge to connect to their project (sometimes people even convince themselves that that's what they were doing all along).

Same with what makes one a "dilettante" versus "Renaissance man", I think: it's more or less a retrospective judgment, and the main factor is how much your output impresses people. The mediocre would-be Renaissance man is a dilettante, and the dilettante who does impressive things is a Renaissance man.

I agree, they're not that useful as descriptive categories for people who are still alive and working. However, I think they're good as prescriptive categorical goals/mindsets: if you want to be remembered as a generalist, then you should be striving to find connections outside the fields you're aware of, and then pursuing those connections where they lead.

I somewhat agree with this. It doesn't actually matter what their skill in X and Y are. What sets generalists apart (or really anyone who claims to be cross-discipline) is not that they have some skill in X and Y (and Z etc etc), but that they have skill in connecting and using X and Y together. And potentially, they've gone one more level meta and are skilled at seeing potential connections between X and Y and other things they aren't actually skilled in.

A dabbler (generally.. ha!) lacks that ability to connect X and Y. Though you can certainly be both. You can be a generalist at work, but then in your hobby time enjoy doing a bit of everything.

As a thing you do to enjoy, there's no real superior thing between dabbling and being 'a generalist'. Do whatever pleases you. But in a work environment, there certainly is a difference.

Unless you just happen to want a guy to split his time at work as UI designer on one project, and as a programmer on another (that have nothing to do with each other what so ever), then you'll probably want an actual generalist, than a dabbler.

Where does "generalist" usually fit in your mid to large corporate structure these days?

It seems to me a good generalist tends to either leave/get fed up because at some point the company grows and he doesn't fit within their new structure - so they try to pigeonhole him into some role - losing the somewhat abstract benefit they had from having that generalist around.

What do you do with a guy who can debug better than 3/4 of your coders, handle networking better than most of your network team, see the "big picture" where others won't - but really doens't like to be painted into a corner.

If these people make it into senior positions with management backing, they tend to stick around, and help out where they can and drift to where they are needed - but that's often not the case.

It seems like you just defined the words to suit you. Personally, I would use "dabbler" to mean "a generalist who is no good."

> I don't really understand -- it seems like you just defined the words to suit you. Personally, I would use "dabbler" to mean "a generalist who is no good."

Okay. If a generalist turns out no good, then why does that happen? Skill? Ability? Work ethic? Marketing? Their ethics and philosophy?

"Not shipping work before moving on" looks like the best explanation to me. If you have an alternative take, I'm all ears. I'm not so sure on this one, and would really like to hear alternative points of view.

I think it probably happens because they are average people with a lot of interests. If you're a person splitting your time between ten distinct pursuits, you probably won't be much good at them compared to a person of similar ability splitting their time between two pursuits. To be good at most of them takes an unusually smart or hard-working person, like da Vinci or (I guess) Steve Jobs.

Who doesn't "ship", anyway? I'm a lousy writer, probably a "dabbler", although I care deeply about writing. I don't publish my writing yet. But I still sit around producing pages; I wouldn't even be a dabbler if I didn't! In my opinion, the difference between me and a "generalist" is that my writing sucks.

Stephen King has a good article, "Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully: in Ten Minutes," which answers the question: are you a talented writer or not?


And I think it's the same thing which distinguishes dabblers from generalists - generalists have talent. They might not be the best, but they have talent.

tl;dr King defines talented writers as those who ship

I would argue that by the author's definition (and maybe The Steve's) you haven't "shipped" either. I dabble in writing but I don't "ship" anything — nothing gets published, etc. It only comes out in the other forms I do "ship" — talks, guest lectures, etc.

I think 'shipping' in that context would be finishing a novel, short story, screenplay or whatever. To the point where you've proofread it for typos. Even if you decide it's not good enough to show anyone. It's the act of completing one project and starting another project that you will also complete.

"Not shipping" would be writing down ideas in your story journal or outlining forever, writing the first page or first chapter or the first act, deciding the idea is going nowhere, and going back to the drawing board, and starting over again and again and again.

> I don't publish my writing yet. But I still sit around producing pages; I wouldn't even be a dabbler if I didn't! In my opinion, the difference between me and a "generalist" is that my writing sucks.

But how do you know your writing sucks? You're obviously a learned guy who has a good command of language. If you published and shared your work with people, are you sure it wouldn't be received better than you think? Or maybe you'd improve in skill and ability from feedback and observation of your work out in the wild?

I find any discipline where I have deadlines and have to either ship, or a competition is coming up, or a talk must be given, or something where I have to deliver/perform on some level... I find I tend to get at least modest successes in those areas. The areas I haven't released work, I'm much less skilled/accomplished. Maybe I'm getting the cause and effect backwards, but I don't think it's entirely the case.

I know my writing changed (and I think, improved) a lot when I started writing publicly than when I wrote privately. It's... it's incredibly different, y'know? It sucks and it's hard and sometimes people say mean things about you, but in the end the real downside is quite low, and the upside seems quite high. And maybe your work is better than you give it credit for? Derek Sivers just wrote a really brilliant piece called "Obvious to You. Amazing to Others" [1] about how people systematically undervalue their own knowledge/skills/ability. Something like that at work, maybe?

[1] http://sivers.org/obvious

Well, I agree with all your points -- people definitely improve at things quickly by being under pressure to deliver, and by exposing themselves to critical feedback. So perhaps the set of good people and the set of people who ship converge until they are identical, anyway.

The ability for a generalist to perform is going to kind of depend on their role on a team. As a note I consider myself to be a generalist in the web application world (I have a pretty good handle on every stage of the stack, some parts more in depth than others).

Really I think the strength there is the overall visibility of how systems work. For me the strength is from a technical and product standpoint, I'm looking for solutions at each level and trying to determine which is the best just because I have experience working at each level. Someone that's focused on front-end or back-end work is going to look at their end for the solution and not necessarily on the other ends. The problem I have is I might not have as solid of a solution as someone that is an expert on that edge of the stack (though I could learn about it if given the opportunity).

Basically I might have a different set of tools at my disposal than someone who is a specialist.

This can obviously extend out to other disciplines, maybe I'm a generalist on the business side and I understand how product and marketing work, but I'm weak on my technical knowledge.

I think that, due to the fact that the tools are more sprawled out, you need to either be in a team that can use those tools effectively or as an individual you need to be very good at prioritizing what the best tools are in order to derive a solution. I think being aware of your strengths and limitations is key, and this is something that comes with time and experience.

I equate generalist with "specialist in more than 1 field". When I hear someone describe themselves as a generalist in the web industry, I assume they would be able to easily get multiple job offers in at least 2 of the following areas - IA/UX, visual design, front-end, back-end, db or server admin.

that about sums it up. He's the guy who's invaluable in your startup, and will probably get shafted when things go corporate because the strong points that made him good for you at the startup stage work against him once you try to categorize everyone and work out pay scales.

I've always looked at it this way: Dabblers are never really dabblers. I, for example, dabble in Rails, but I'm a real expert in math based marketing and database stuff ("Market Intelligence", "Business Intelligence", "Analytics"). When I play with Rails, everyone around me just assumes that all I do is dabble, but I don't. I'm building up valuable knowledge that I can apply at an opportune time during my expert level focus elsewhere. Knowing that I can, say, split test with either JavaScript or server side rails code does impact my decisions and suggestions.

Generalists, on the other hand, have reached a beyond-novice level of skill in multiple, seemingly disjointed skills, but they are able to pull it together to create new things. These are the type of guys that invent injections of ionic compounds into the blood stream to map out cancerous tumors. They have enough points of knowledge to come up with an idea that a world class tumor surgeon would never be able to suggest, even if they couldn't actually preform as well as the surgeon.

If you look at a Jefferson, da Vinci, Jobs – they shipped. A lot.

I don't think that's quite true. Leonardo was known to miss deadlines and abandon works; perhaps a better approach would be looking at how confident they were of their ability to produce varied things.

Also comparing Jobs to da Vinci and Jefferson, well personally I see them in different levels (both on recognition and impact of their actions).

I don't think you can be just one. The work I've done solving problems gives me a generalist view, but I'm constantly dabbling; keeping my ear to the ground as it were for some idea of what the options are.

To that end a generalist has tangible real world experience with a given technology that may be applicable to multiple domains. A dabbler has a very cursory overview of the specific tech and is perhaps aware of some of the options and caveats that exist, but hasn't earned the bumps and bruises to be considered comfortable with it.

I think the idea is that being a dabbler first is necessary but not sufficient to become a generalist

First off, great post. But I think we improve it by simplifying. The word "ship" implies a certain type of formal software work, which I think is an unnecessary constraint on the concept.

Output is the key. If you are creating something, you're doing it right. If you "dabble" from here to there and never make anything...you're doing it wrong.

Output. Creation. Fruit. Those are the distinctions that matter.

To me the difference is in intent: a generalist is doing whatever it takes, a dabbler is playing around.

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