Generalist vs. Specialist – Finding Meaning in Work.

There is a chasm for finding meaning in work. On one side, people want to see the impact of what they do. They want to contribute and make a difference. On the other side is all the things that need to be done, each requiring a specific skillset to make it happen.

At times, it’s fun to be the generalist because all items belong to you. You see the input, you see the work, you see the output and the meaning behind it. This generalist is the one man shop. The business owner who finds clients, sells work, does the job, and repeats for a living. The struggle for most is that this is exhausting. Our brains have to switch between many different tasks, and some of them we are less skilled at then others. Which is why as a society we came up with specialization. A certain job with a certain skillset. One that can mastered, made efficient, and where the worker can bring significant leverage by dealing with the same problems over and over. The problem here is you only see a specific input and a specific output, and finding the meaning in the work may be much harder.

I’ve seen it online, heard it in conversations, and think about it quite a bit. There is a growing discontent with the corporate world of work. It’s a social problem that needs some sort of resolution, or at least acceptance. Most of the discontents don’t even quite understand themselves what they are upset about because when reflecting on these thoughts, the human condition is one of work. If we didn’t live in a society, would we be free of work?

Of course not.

Here’s a list of work to be done:

  • Food to be grown, gathered or hunted
  • Food preparation and cooking
  • Clothing to be made
  • Shelter to be built
  • Materials to be harvested and shaped
  • Weapons/protection to be made
  • Fires to be built

Make no mistake, this is work. However, it seems many people are now daydreaming about this sort of thing. Why? They see the meaning in it. The meaning is, “It allows me to survive.” Somehow their brains aren’t associated specialized work with that same meaning, even though it is. Society is doing all of those things above, it’s just splitting them up over people with different skills.

This chasm is only something that is likely to grow. I see it in the world I’m in. Technology is growing more complex, ever more specialized people are needed to work in narrow fields as it takes more learning to understand the state-of-the-art in these fields. That increases the effect that fewer and fewer people can see the meaning in their work.

What’s the answer?

I don’t think there is only one, but here are a couple of thoughts:

  • Your work is part of a bigger system. You do it so you can survive, and it contributes to the work of others that are part of the same system. That’s okay.
  • If you want to see the meaning, take on a more generalist role. Something that let’s you see it all. This could be a different job, or it could be starting your own business.
  • If you can’t accept those first two points, spend a couple weeks camping with not much by way of materials. It may change your outlook.