There have been a few moments this week where people have questioned why I choose to pursue multiple interests and why I am studying leadership in an academic arena. This has led me to define for myself an appropriate response to those questions, so that I do not take offense, and most importantly, seek to motivate the other person or group of people to a greater cause or purpose for their lives.
In class Monday evening, I mentioned that I was a voracious reader, so naturally the teacher asked what I was reading. The first book I mentioned was Refuse to Choose!: Use All Your Interests, Passions, and Hobbies to Create the Life and Career of Your Dreams by Barbara Sher. I noted emphatically the impact it has had upon my life because of the use of positive language to describe people that have multiple interests and insatiable appetites for learning and curiosity as well as accepting generalists for who they are, not forcing them to choose a speciality. The response from a peer was fascinating: “So, why are you here studying leadership? Isn’t that a form of specialization?”
My whole-hearted response: No. Here’s why.
The challenge to choose between being a specialist or generalist is often driven by a societal need to label and classify every possible object or person for the ease of knowing how to properly respond to a given scenario. It is also a way to justify earning more money or respect from others within organizations and traditional hierarchies of influence. But, as Sher points out in her book, being a specialist is a recent invention of the 20th-century. She reminds the reader of the past reverence of being a “Renaissance Man” or someone infinitely curious, seeking to learn, grow, and change. Leonardo Da Vinci is the poster child for what a Renaissance Man is all about. Not only was he a painter, but he wrote and studied philosophy, mathematics, theories of flight, design of helicopters and machines, architecture, prophecy, color, perspective, and more than our modern brain could possibly believe that a single man living without the Internet could know.
In his notebooks, Da Vinci had this to say about imagination: “The idea or the faculty of imagination is both rudder and bridle to the senses, inasmuch as the thing imagined moves the sense. Pre-imaginging is the imagining of things that are to be. Post-imagining is the imagining of things that are past.”
Imagination guides and directs our actions and senses. If locked into a specialist mentality, imagination becomes constrained by the limitations imposed by that speciality. When I started my college career, I wanted to be a computer science major, by design a highly specialized industry, but the more I progressed in the program the greater the disconnect between all of my interests became. I did not enter the computer science program, and from there my major become business, then art, then I dropped out. After a brief stint in a rock band, I returned to The Art Institute of Portland to graduate with a degree in Media Arts & Animation, which was heaven for a generalist like myself.
Learning about leadership is not something that is the end result of my life or career. It is merely another interest that fuels what I do and who I am. How does it relate to being a graphic artist? How does it relate to being a business owner? A friend? A husband? A writer? A filmmaker? Leadership is part of a critical foundation for success. It solidifies what I believe, which in turn affects how I treat others.
I will be a generalist until the day I die and I am finally okay with that.
Some time ago, a friend was asked what subjects a student should learn in order to be a better worker, he responded: “You obviously need to know your trade, but in the future, that won’t be enough. Read Dickens. Understand economics. Know people.”