© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite


McGowans just don’t do sports that way.
Connor McGowan

My kids are sportier than ever I was — which is to say they play sports, period, at all. But I’d never thought much about the way they do it until last week when I overheard Connor (16), Erin (14), and Becca talking about it.

Connor’s done T-ball, soccer, football, basketball, and wrestling…each for 1-2 years. Erin was on swim team and played soccer and basketball, then dabbled in track before finding and adoring volleyball. Delaney (10) has done two years swimming and six years of rec-level soccer. Regardless of length, they’ve all been low key, and each sport has competed for time and focus with a lot of other dabblings — acting, photography, science, guitar, piano, paintball, graphic design, and the art of sitting around.

Erin’s on the cusp of her freshman year and planning to try out for the high school volleyball team, so she’s attending a volleyball training program two mornings a week, run by the high school coach. Erin has terrific skills and has come a long way in recent years. Still, this program is really pushing her both physically and in terms of skill development, in part because she’s encountering The Ones Who Live to Volley— girls whose exit from the womb was preceded by a wicked spike. Erin loves volleyball, but these girls ARE volleyball. She brings four years of YMCA ball with her, while they’ve got eight years of bloodcurdling competitive league play. Some of them train with a private coach instead of Dad in the driveway. It shows…and it’s kind of freaking her out.

Boy, do I get it.

Erin was describing these Übervolleymädchen when Connor offered his observation that McGowans just don’t do sports that way. He really could have said we don’t do anything that way. We’re not monomaniacal focusers, he explained. We’re dabblers. We’re generalists. “That’s good,” he said. “You don’t want to let one thing take over your life.”

The voice in my head had come out to play.

I’d never thought of this as a family trait, but it certainly sums me up…for better and worse. My life could be described as the continuous inability to walk into the Baskin-Robbins of life and pick a damn flavor, from hobbies to college majors to actual careers. As a result, I’ve been pretty good at a dozen things but master of nothing. Before I get a chance to dig in and own something, really own it, the squirrel in my periphery — a different instrument to play, a different major, a different course to teach or book to read or career to try — that pretty, fluffy squirrel gets itself good and chased. Until I see a chipmunk, ooh!!

Even within a given rodent, I never stand still long enough to acquire genuine depth or experience. When somebody once introduced me before a speech as a “Renaissance man,” I winced. That’s just an insult to the 16th century. Da Vinci somehow dipped his whole damn self into each of the many things he did, while I’m like a wine taster with a gnat’s attention span. By the end of the day, I’ve tasted a hundred vintages and am not even slightly drunk because most of the wine is on the front of my shirt. Oh sure, I’m “better rounded” than I would otherwise be, which is great, but SQUIRREL!!!

Though I can’t join them, I’ve always been grateful for people with the focus to get insanely good at one thing. We owe the modern world to them. But I’m a generalist, skating over the lovely surface of their achievements, and my kids are too. We each know a little about a whole lot. I really love that approach to life, but once in a while it bites me on the ass — like every time Dabbling Dale is tinkering with a new shiny thing, only to be tapped on the shoulder by The One Who Has Mastered The Shiny Thing You Are Now Holding Upside Down.

They don’t mean to tap the shoulder. Well pfft actually yes, they sometimes do. My greatest humiliations were intentional shoulder taps by one Thing-Masterer or another. Right now Erin is encountering a less intentional but still difficult consequence of being a dancing, sampling generalist instead of a specialist.

There’s another downside, one that is catching up with me in a big way lately. I blogged recently about flow, and my love of the idea, and the fact that I just don’t experience it that often. Maybe if I had stopped to develop one area more intensely instead of hopscotching full time, I could achieve those deeper flow experiences that elude me.

When I heard Connor trying to make Erin feel better by identifying generalism as a family trait, and a good one at that, I was really mixed. In addition to the flow question, the specialized paths are much better lit. It was never the thing for me, at all, but in addition to the undeniable thrill of seeing the world in a complexly synthesized way, there’s been some real hell to pay for being a generalist.

Yes I know, it’s not either-or. Except it is. If you try to be a specialist with some added breadth, you will, eventually and repeatedly, run into The Specialist Without Breadth who (with a permission slip from Darwin) will happily crush you underfoot on the way to the medal podium.

I’m trying to be aware of this “family trait” of generalism, and most days, I still feel it’s the better way. But that’s partly because of who I am, of course. I need to let my kids know there’s another valid way, and that specializing has massive payoffs of its own. If they do keep following me into the general, they need to know they are in for a fascinating trip, the occasional humiliation, and a shirtful of really great wine.



This was written on Tuesday, 29. May 2012 at 12:50 and was filed under My kids, values. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. You reminded me of the Valve Employee Handbook which I read recently:


    Valve is a gaming company with a very interesting way of running their business which is covered in the handbook, but the relevant point is that their primary hiring only people with a good balance of specialization and general knowledge/ability.

    Useful if you want to work at Valve (and who wouldn’t?) though not a criteria as often used elsewhere.

    Comment: cheerfulstoic – 29. May 2012 @ 1:48 pm

  2. Thanks. I read this post shortly after reading this one: http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/29/give-a-girl-a-hook-get-her-into-college/. There is so much pressure on kids to specialize yet I wonder whether most kids and adult are happier when encouraged to dabble.

    Comment: Carol – 29. May 2012 @ 3:18 pm

  3. Dale, you have most certainly specialized in four areas quite well: writing, educating, parenting and humanism. What’s most interesting is how you took those four specialties and merged them towards one singular focus that you do extremely well and no one else can do – being you. You take pieces of yourself, the real you (I assume or else you’re a master of fiction) and study it in the wide open world. The way you be you makes everyone else who observes and interacts with you a better person.
    You write to examine yourself and how you approach the world. Your writing is a method that teaches, your teaching educates yourself and others, your kids and your family educate you and you write about what you learn from them and that makes you a better philosopher and a better parent.
    There is no other writer I know that can inspire excitement about simply being alive but be so calming at the same time. Your words have made my life better and by extension gave everyone who knows me a more thoughtful, peaceful, aware presence in their lives. My husband and my kids are having a fuller, more engaged life because I learned about humanism and secular parenting from your blog.
    I wouldn’t worry one little bit about specializing. You have done a fantastic job specializing in being you and I’d rather be a spectator at that event over a volleyball match any day.
    My apologies to your family for possibly inflating your ego but seriously, give yourself a lot more credit!

    Comment: megmcg – 30. May 2012 @ 5:34 am

  4. Dale, thanks again for some great insight. I would first simply agree with megmcg above, who said a lot of what I was about to… Second, the fact that you’ve read and thought so broadly is, in essence, your specialization, and you bring so many things together for the rest of us to chew on more efficiently. I’m a biologist who things alot about generalist vs. specialist strategies, and the more I think and work, the more I feel you have to be very good at being a generalist, or you’ll fail just as miserably in the attempt as you or I would trying to be a specialist.

    Finally, in reference to your last comment about generalism being the “better” way, I was surprised to see you say that. Aren’t they both valid and appropriate ways of being? And likely both just as good, in some arbitrary sense? I think of neither way as “better”, but simply think it’s important for us each to know who we are, and to love ourselves for it, even while we gaze at the occasionally greener grass on the other side of the fence.

    Thanks as always for the inspiration, and by the way, I’m about half way through PBB, and LOVING it! Cheers. Pru

    Comment: pruman – 30. May 2012 @ 7:06 am

  5. Well thanks, Meg and Pru, you’re way too kind.

    As for my last comment, most days I do find myself thinking it’s better to be a generalist. But as the rest of the post shows, that falls apart when I pan out a bit. They’re both not only valid but essential. (I tweaked it a bit to make that clearer.)

    Comment: Dale – 30. May 2012 @ 9:09 am

  6. I worry about this all the time.

    I think most of these “archors” that kids get involved in are a complete waste of time. I don’t think “learning to commit” is an abstractly transferable skill, though I suppose “being unwilling to stick with anything” can be a lifelong problem.


    Comment: BillSeitz – 30. May 2012 @ 10:00 am

  7. But you really aren’t a generalist at all. You have your passions that all aspects of your life are connected to. You are über-specialized. I think what you are caught on is that your success at mastering the specialization of being yourself has given you the opportunity to experience many things.

    If your specialization is not successful- you can’t nail a proper set up, you struggle to play Chopin, the formula doesn’t re-test well then you have to keep at it. When folks master a skill they initially celebrate and demonstrate but without another challenge their mastery of that skill gets downgraded.

    As long as you and your kids enjoy the process of mastering being yourselves you will never have to endure complacency or the fear of losing the opportunity to achieve more. Think about the cliche, it’s the journey, not the destination. You have chosen a specialty without a destination. Well there’s only one – death. That means you get a complete life, a full existence and that’s a hell of a lot more than most get and I think most people don’t get to realize they missed their chance at really living until it’s too late.

    Comment: megmcg – 30. May 2012 @ 10:39 am

  8. From a strictly evolutionary point of view, specialization can get you far in times of stability, but the generalists are better equipped for survival in times of change and uncertainty. Putting all your eggs in the volleyball basket is great to refine your specialized spiking skills,.. until that unfortunate accident where you lose your left arm. Then you thank your lucky stars that you’re right handed, and have cultivated other interests where two arms aren’t necessary.

    But tragedy is not the only source of instability, and new discoveries often reveal opportunities for those with a broad base of competence: For the ones with tuned peripheral vision, poised to chase that squirrel. And while deep familiarity with one topic can produce amazing refinement, it often results in the sort of tunnel vision that stifles innovation. It takes a generalist to apply solutions from unrelated fields to the seemingly insoluble problems of the specialist realms. Integrated approaches are useful for developing solid understanding, and elegant solutions.

    Woe to the specialist who finds his specialty obsolete. And fortune to the fortunate generalist, who can see the broad pattern of change and pioneer a new path for the specialists to worry flat and deep in time.

    Comment: janet – 30. May 2012 @ 6:32 pm

  9. I ‘specialized’ as a kid with school – though not a genious, always top of the class. When I started university my ego was crushed – there were so many ‘smart’ kids and I had nothing else. I really want my kids to be well-rounded, do things they enjoy because they enjoy them not so they can be THE best – hockey, swimming, guitar, piano, drama – but I have to remind myself when report cards come home because I also want them to do THEIR best.

    As an aside – very glad to see you’re scheduled for Ottawa!

    Comment: Laura – 01. June 2012 @ 8:53 am

  10. As a fellow Generalist, I hear you. I have definitely been the one who knows a little about way too many things and have been called out by those who know better. Over the years, though, I have found two things that have solidified my strengths as a generalist.
    (1) Find connections between things. What Specialists often miss are the connections between things. While I can’t talk ad naseum about the Industrial Revolution, I can talk briefly about the change from artisan culture to manufactured culture and how that affects our current system of mass production, etc, etc.
    (2) Find the balance between offering your knowledge as a generalist and portraying yourself as a expert. As known as when to say, Yes, Gerald, tell us more about molecular physics….. While I know a lot as a Generalist, I have learned to couch my knowledge in slightly more vague terms so that when the inevitable specialist arrives, I can defer without being humilitated because I got the details wrong. Having the confident humility to know when to acknowledge the specialist has been a huge step forward in my generalist life – and wonderfully enough, it usually means I get to learn something more about a subject I’m interested in- something every generalist should love. But it starts from always making sure I’m never sounding too cocky or know-better-than-you when I’m sharing some of my generalist knowledge.
    Similar to the poster above, I have been both the “smart kid” and the average smart kid among many really smart kids that I appreciate different kinds of knowledge and know that specialized knowledge may not come with specialized understanding of how to share that information with the rest of the world.
    For my kids, we’ve been trying to teach a combination- we want them to know how to work hard for something and practice/practice until they get it right, but also know that we value trying new and different things as well. In my opinion, specialists may make the next new inventions, but it’s the generalists who will make that invention fit into our lives and be worth having.

    Comment: downfroggy – 04. June 2012 @ 10:20 pm

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